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Las Vegas police investigating a rape allegation against Cristiano Ronaldo have sent a warrant to authorities in Italy requesting a sample of the Portuguese football superstar’s DNA, a police spokeswoman said Thursday.
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Nine years ago, Kathryn Mayorga signed a non-disclosure agreement presented to her by lawyers for the international soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. Last week, in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel and in court filings in Las Vegas challenging that NDA, Mayorga broke her silence and spoke out publicly. She says Ronaldo raped her in 2009 in a Las Vegas hotel room.
The allegations are now reverberating through the sporting world. The Portuguese superstar has been world player of the year five times and lifted the Champions League trophy with his club team three seasons in a row. His most recent contract with Nike is reportedly worth one billion dollars. But now Nike has released a statement that the company is “deeply concerned” about Mayorga’s allegations. Ronaldo denied the allegations himself on Instagram on Sept. 30, calling them “fake news.” The Italian club Juventus, which spent $ 117 million to acquire Ronaldo from Real Madrid over the summer, took to social media on Thursday to defend its new star. With controversy swirling, Portugal chose not to include Ronaldo in its squad for the next round of international fixtures, although both sides say the decision is temporary.
What comes next is still uncertain. The Ronaldo case is the the highest-profile story of sexual assault in soccer since the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Indeed, Mayorga has said she was inspired by reading the testimony of other women who chose to reveal publicly stories they had felt unable to speak about for years.
But as Mayorga tells her story, will Ronaldo face any consequences? One problem here is that the structure of European sports makes it hard for punishments to be leveled in similar situations. Such punishments in North American sports are hardly a given—hockey star Patrick Kane was not sanctioned by the National Hockey League after being accused of sexual assault in 2015, for example. But when they do happen, as with Major League Baseball suspending Addison Russell for 40 games due to an allegation of domestic abuse, the punishments are typically brought by the leagues. In Europe, however, there is no single European soccer league comparable to the NHL or MLB. When he signed for Juventus, Ronaldo left Spain’s La Liga for a different league in Italy, Serie A.
These various national leagues tend to be loose confederations in which the top teams hold outsized power. Serie A is unlikely to act in a way that punishes its top team. It would also be possible for the Italian Football Federation, which oversees both club and international soccer in the country, to level a punishment. But that power is not widely used in cases like this either. In 2016 in England, when the player Ched Evans was released from prison after serving time for rape, neither the league nor the English Football Association stepped in to suspend or otherwise sanction Evans. Ronaldo then has two lines of defense. His club, which invested heavily to retain his services, has spoken in his defense. The league and the national federation have little history of fighting disciplinary battles in similar situations and limited power to effectively challenge Juventus. So long as the club defends the player, the institutions of European soccer are structured to protect players like Ronaldo.
These institutional protections echo Ronaldo’s own protections, as reported by Der Spiegel. His lawyers went so far as to hire private investigators to trail Mayorga as they sought to discredit her accusations. In so many #MeToo cases, powerful men use the legal system to protect themselves from consequences and to silence those who speak up against them.
This has been standard in Ronaldo’s defense, with his lawyers threatening a lawsuit against Der Spiegel. Here, they are using another key institutional protection—defamation laws. Libel law in the United Kingdom places the burden of proof on the defense, meaning that a newspaper sued by Ronaldo for publishing details of the rape accusation would need to demonstrate to the court it had not defamed the soccer star. Much of the initial English-language coverage of the Ronaldo case came from American media, where publishers have less to fear from the legal threats of Ronaldo’s team.
But coverage is now intensifying, despite the legal hurdles. An outcry from women and feminist media critics challenged reporters to investigate the story. Events such as the re-opening of the criminal case by Las Vegas police, the public statement of concern from Nike, and Ronaldo’s and Juventus’ public statements have provided local media with clear facts to report.
And Mayorga’s allegations are not simply a matter of her word against Ronaldo’s. In her legal filing, Mayorga claims that medical examinations from the night of the incident confirm her account. She also brings forward a questionnaire in which it appears Ronaldo admits that Mayorga repeatedly said “no” and “stop” during the event. While these documents are not yet fully public or confirmed, they have been reported by Der Spiegel and would offer more material for investigation were they to become public.
The Ronaldo case, then, is developing slowly. While in the past an allegation like Mayorga’s might have been dismissed, and a denial like Ronaldo’s simply accepted, here the story continues. But it faces even more obstacles than a similar allegation would in American sports. The loose structure of the league system and more restrictive defamation laws both offer added protections to sports figures. Mayorga is speaking out and the platform of the #MeToo movement has enabled her voice to be heard.
Still, the European sporting context offers a variety of institutional supports to a powerful man seeking to avoid punishment after an allegation of assault. The weakness of sporting leagues and defamation law, combined with the vocal support of his club, continue to make it unlikely that Mayorga’s accusations will lead to serious consequences.
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Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal’s most famous soccer player and arguably the most famous athlete in the world. But in the last few days, his name hasn’t been in headlines for winning championships or crying on the pitch after being issued a red card. His name is flashing across screens because of a 34 year-old woman named Kathryn Mayorga, has come forward to say Ronaldo brutally raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009.
How is it possible that a story that sports media in North America had no interest in publishing less than two years ago, is now splashed all over every screen and social media platform? This case was not reported on by any major outlet except for a story in 2017 by the independent German newspaper Der Spiegel. Except for a select few commenting on social media (myself included), the case against Ronaldo got no traction. Fast forward 18 months, and Der Spiegel published another story. This time, it was a detailed account from Kathryn Mayorga herself. The publication spent more than 20 days with her and held countless interviews, fact checked and re-checked before it published.
The documents acquired by der Spiegel were damning and according to a recent Twitter thread by one of the main authors, Christoph Winterbach, there were more than 20 staff involved in working on the article. In response. Ronaldo’s lawyer and his team made a lot of noise as part of their legal posturing and even accused der Spiegel’s piece of being “illegal” because “it violates the personal rights” of Ronaldo. Laughable at best.
For those who understand the law, and the severity of the crime, there is much substance in this story. Back in 2009, Mayorga’s inexperienced lawyer (who had specialized in traffic violations) was no match for Ronaldo’s PR mega-machine and legal team, ended up settling with them for $ 375,000 on the condition Mayorga not . But Mayorga’s new legal team is disputing that contract and arguing that she was mentally deficient due to trauma from rape, and was not competent enough to make a proper decision at the time.
They have filed a civil suit on Mayorga’s behalf and the case has since been re-opened by the Las Vegas police. In Nevada, the statute of limitations has not expired for this crime. Mayorga has not only suffered physically (the hospital documented her injuries in a rape kit when she reported the crime), but she continues to suffer from that trauma to this day and—according to her lawyer—is in “active therapy.”
Ronaldo initially called the allegations “fake news” and insinuated that Mayorga was trying to get famous using his name. I have worked with survivors of violence and have yet to meet or know of a victim who has enjoyed any of the bullying, shame, societal isolation and mental health upheavals, and wanted to claim some type of infamy from an attack. And I won’t even dignify the ridiculous notion of “false accusations.”
Writing about rape culture in the soccer world is a struggle. Before the 2015 UEFA Championships, I heard about allegations against Spanish goalkeeper and Manchester United star David De Gea, who was implicated in a horrible rape case. I pitched that piece to at least ten different outlets and no one was interested in publishing it and paying me for my work. Thankfully, I found it a home at a soccer site entirely run by women. And they backed me up when the online harassment started to descend. I have only tweeted about Ronaldo thus far and the responses to my tweets have been violent and angry—presumably from Ronaldo supporters. Another indication of the hatred casually flung at women for speaking up.
Mayorga’s attorney has said that she was enabled by hearing survivors in the #MeToo movement disclose their own stories. There is a strong tide of women speaking up courageously, slowly washing away the impunity often enjoyed by powerful misogynists and abusers. Perhaps #MeToo has finally transcended into the realm of sports, a realm where it is desperately needed. With cases like Patrick Kane, Kobe Bryant and Baylor University’s football team, and other men who rarely face consequences for their actions, it is needed now more than ever.
Predictably, the same sports media who initially had no interest in this story have become “experts” in criminal law, and on sexualized violence. The vacuous reporting and unnecessary reflections are mostly done by men, and center the 33-year-old star. Opinions on due process (reminder: it’s a legal system not a justice system) and about Ronaldo’s athletic prowess and teams don’t have anything to do with this case in which he is accused of anally raping a woman, who by his own accord, told him “no.”
The way that these stories are reported by sports journalists who have little or no training in reporting accurately on sexualized violence can be re-traumatizing for many survivors. Instead of investing in proper media tool kits compiled by advocates for victims of violence (all free), editors unleash a bevy of unhelpful pieces that contribute to an unhealthy society steeped in rape apologism. On that night in 2009, Mayorga was dancing with Ronaldo. Does that mean she invited rape? No. These outlets are complicit in the way that victim blaming and shaming become part of natural discourse when rape is reported.
Then there is the sexist sports establishment itself. Since the most recent news broke out, the predictably irrelevant statements of solidarity from Ronaldo’s supporters have emerged. His current team Juventus FC tweeted out nonsensically reminding Twitter that Ronaldo has conducted himself with “professionalism” and “dedication.” The issue at hand is not whether he is a “champion.” How Ronaldo performs on the pitch is not correlated to the fact that he may have brutally violated a woman. The issues must not be conflated.
Ronaldo was left off of the Portuguese national team roster for upcoming international matches—but not because the Portuguese football federation felt it necessary to exclude him from the squad for being charged with a violent crime. They somehow managed to explain this decision while singing his praises. Portugal national men’s coach Fernando Santos said in a news conference on Thursday, “[Federation] president Fernando Gomes and I spoke with Cristiano Ronaldo and we considered it best for the player not to be included in this and November’s call-ups.
He went on to wax poetic about the alleged rapist: “I personally always support my players, and this is not even a question of solidarity, but I believe what the player said publicly. He considers rape to be an abominable crime and clearly reaffirms that he is innocent of what he is being accused of. I know Cristiano well and I fully believe he would not commit a crime like that.”
How nice for Ronaldo for people to believe him because he works hard and people are familiar with his persona. And while Nike and EA Games, two of Ronaldo’s major corporate sponsors, are “concerned” with the allegations, it is not enough to have them pull their money away—even though Ronaldo allegedly used sponsorship money to settle with Mayorga in 2009. The reluctance to cut ties with a powerful athlete underlines that the dignity of a woman is not worth sacrificing profits from soccer cleats.
#MeToo has yet to be championed the way that alleged rapists are.
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