#MeToo hits Cristiano Ronaldo

How will international football respond to claims of sexual misconduct?

ronaldo

On September 28, German newspaper Der Spiegel published explosive allegations of sexual assault against Cristiano Ronaldo.

In 2009, Ronaldo—perhaps soccer’s biggest superstar—was caught up in an incident at a Las Vegas nightclub. Spiegel spent a year investigating, and finally made contact with teacher Kathryn Mayorga. In 2009, Mayorga was an emerging model, 25 years old, who worked for Las Vegas nightclubs. She claims Ronaldo raped her.

Many Ronaldo fans have questioned why Mayorga is only coming forward now. The answer is clear: in 2010, Mayorga signed a non-disclosure agreement, part of a $375,000 out-of-court settlement she reached with Ronaldo. But it is important to note that she went to the police immediately after the alleged assault.

Out of these official proceedings, documents have turned up which seem to damn Ronaldo. In a questionnaire prepared by his legal team at the time, Ronaldo states that, during their sexual encounter, Mayorga “said ‘no’ and ‘stop’ several times”. This statement disappeared from later versions of the questionnaire and Ronaldo now claims the sex was consensual. But at face value it reads as a clear admission of guilt.

And now, Mayorga is ready to seek justice. Her lawyers are questioning the validity of the agreement and Las Vegas Police have re-opened the investigation.

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In the #MeToo world, rape allegations spread like wildfire. But when it came to Ronaldo the reaction was muted.

It took two days after the initial article for outlets like the BBC to report on the case, and even then, only to platform Ronaldo’s denials.

It took days more for soccer sponsors to comment on the allegations. Juventus, Ronaldo’s club, defended him on twitter on September 5, a week after the first article.

Part of it might come down to Ronaldo’s sheer popularity: recently, ESPN named him the most famous athlete in the world, with over 120 million followers on social media and $40 million in endorsements. It’s impossible to escape him if you’re a football fan. He’s on the cover of FIFA 19 and every time he scores a goal it’s plastered all over the papers. He’s popular—and he’s valuable. Soccer, FIFA and clubs all have financial interest in preserving his reputation.

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Mayorga says the #MeToo movement gave her the courage to come forward. But this is #MeToo’s first big test in the sporting world, and so far the results are disheartening. On social media, droves of fans have come out in Ronaldo’s support.

#MeToo, after all, was born in Hollywood and the corridors of US politics. These are areas where patriarchal power structures abound— but still less so than in sports. Female athletes have tiny public profiles and most sports’ biggest players are men. Masculinity here is at its most toxic: certain stars, like Ronaldo, become heroes and sex icons. It’s easy to see how they could develop a sense of entitlement and impunity, and how fans could excuse it.

With the Ronaldo case, #MeToo has also been taken outside its original cultural context: soccer is a global game, and audiences across the world, who may not have encountered #MeToo before, will now have to grapple with the allegations against Ronaldo. Many, particularly from societies where patriarchal oppression remains strong, may struggle to condemn a godlike figure.

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“What they say today… fake, fake news!”

Ronaldo’s response to the allegations against him echoes the words of US President Donald Trump, striking an uneasy link between the two. Trump, famously, has never been held accountable for his sexual misconduct and gross objectification of women. #MeToo clearly does not always work. With Mayorga’s allegations against Ronaldo, it’s clear the sporting world has a choice: whether it will apply #MeToo’s standards to the world’s most famous athlete, or allow him to escape with impunity.