Over the last year, #MeToo has spread from Hollywood to politics to even sports. But soccer, the world’s most popular sport, had been relatively untouched by the movement — until now. Last month, new allegations emerged that cast a spotlight on how “the beautiful game” is crying out for its own #MeToo moment.
On Sept. 29, the German magazine Der Spiegel published an interview with Kathryn Mayorga, a 34-year-old teacher who claims that soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo raped her in Las Vegas in 2009. According to her account, she met Ronaldo at a nightclub and, along with a friend and a larger group, joined him at his penthouse. After she visited the bathroom, she alleges that Ronaldo approached her, demanded oral sex and then raped her as she screamed, “No, no, no.”
Based on a lawsuit she filed Friday in Clark County, Nev., Mayorga apparently reported the incident that same day and went to the hospital for a sexual assault examination. According to Der Spiegel, she later agreed to a settlement and was paid $375,000.
Ronaldo’s representatives have vehemently denied Der Spiegel’s account and have threatened to sue the magazine. Ronaldo himself tweeted that he “firmly denied” the accusations and called the article “fake news” in an Instagram story. But last Monday, Las Vegas police confirmed they had reopened the case, and now another woman has reportedly contacted Mayorga’s lawyer to accuse Ronaldo of misconduct.
The allegations against Ronaldo are shocking, and he is by no means the first elite soccer player to be accused of abusive behavior. In 2017, the Brazilian footballer Robinho was sentenced to nine years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in 2013; and in 2016, English player Adam Johnson was found guilty of sexual activity with a child and sentenced to six years in prison. Last October, women’s soccer player Alexandra Nord accused an unnamed English Premier League player of trying to rape her while she was passed out in a hotel room. And just last month, another unnamed Premier League player was charged with raping a schoolgirl in France. The list goes on and on.
Yet, far too often, these players are shielded from facing the full consequences of their actions. As writer Michael Caley noted on Sunday in Time, the institutions of European soccer are designed to protect star players from anything that could harm their game. Clubs, national federations and leagues are all incentivized to brush accusations under the rug and ensure that their most profitable money-makers are able to play without distraction. Players, meanwhile, benefit from wealth, fame and support systems that shield them from accountability. The power dynamics between them and the women who accuse them are stark.
The narrative is not new: It was precisely these power structures that contributed to the cycle of abuse and misconduct that plagued Hollywood, media and even politics. The difference is that with soccer, even when women such as Mayorga are coming forward with their stories, people are still shrugging their shoulders and looking the other way.
Take the Ronaldo case: His Italian club team, Juventus, which just this summer spent a whopping $117 million to acquire him, has backed the star, and he even returned to the team on Saturday. His national team, Portugal, has left him off the squad for its upcoming international matches, but those games are low-stakes and the coaching staff has made clear that the move is temporary. Nike, his largest sponsor, has expressed concern but has, thus far, made no official move to distance itself from the player. Fans have taken to social media with messages of support for the star. Monday morning, it was announced that he was shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or, soccer’s most prestigious annual individual award. Relative to what has happened to other celebrities facing credible accusations, the public backlash against Ronaldo has been tepid — so far.
These latest allegations are another reminder that soccer, like Hollywood, needs a reckoning. Clubs and federations should be pressured to investigate allegations, players should face the prospect of temporary leave or suspension if they are being investigated, and athletes and coaches alike should be put through domestic violence training and consent education. Perhaps now, when one of the most famous athletes in the world stands accused of a terrible crime, the industry will take notice and respond. But as long as so many look the other way when soccer players engage in appalling behavior, I’m not holding my breath.