Ronaldo is an Icon of Corruption in Sports
Instead of focusing on Ronaldo the mega-star, focus on the athlete embedded in a deeply corrupt and exploitative system. Then you might see this for what it is: a story about the total lack of accountability for men who see themselves as above the law.
Photo by Andy Rain/EPA-EFE
Kathryn Mayorga filed a civil lawsuit in Clark County District Court in Nevada last month in which she alleges mega-soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo raped her in 2009. At the time, she reported the rape to the police, was medically examined, and filed criminal charges. She subsequently dropped those charges on the advice of an attorney who likely had little experience with the type of legal machine she was confronting. She received $375,000 for her silence. Last year, the German magazine Der Spiegel received documents about the case from Football Leaks. They published the story, Ronaldo threatened to sue, Der Spiegel convinced Mayorga to come forward, Ronaldo threatened to sue again. Mayorga has and will continue to endure threats and scrutiny of every kind from lawyers, businessmen, detectives and legions of fans. This is not the only sexual assault charge Ronaldo has faced, but as of now it is the most serious.
It’s worth taking a step back, after the initial media cycle and before the next begins to consider why and how this subject matters. It is worth recalling the context through which Mayorga’s story has surfaced— Football Leaks is not known for exposing rape accusations. Its territory is transfer deals, sponsorship contracts, the use of shell companies in tax evasion, self-dealing, match-fixing, and money laundering.
Nested in that trove of information are records documenting the negotiations between Mayorga’s lawyer and Ronaldo’s team. These are hardly the only documents pertaining to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Football Leaks archive. In 2014, Ronaldo avoided paying $35 million euros when he diverted $63.5 million of his fortune into a British Virgin Islands tax haven. Eventually, he pled guilty to four charges of tax evasion, agreed to pay $19 million euros and accepted a two-year probationary prison sentence. Football Leaks documents the financial corruption practiced by a network of men—agents, team owners, players, and officials—swirling around in beautifully tailored suits, moving through hotel lobbies, company boardrooms and homes that look like corporate compounds.
We need to see the way that Mayorga’s complaint was handled—the way that Mayorga herself was treated—as part of the sport’s culture, as an expression of not only its patriarchy but also its corruption. When asked to comment on the resurfacing of Mayorga’s story, Ronaldo shrugged this story off as “fake news.” In March, he used this same language in response to rumors that Spanish authorities were pursuing criminal charges after they turned down his team’s initial settlement offer. In an Instagram post, he asked his fans not to pay attention to “fake news” aimed at spoiling the “beautiful moment” of his return to form.
The rush to defend Ronaldo on the part of coaches, club directors, sponsors, and fans is to be expected. Juventus lauded the player’s “professionalism and dedication” and made clear that the rape accusation does not change their opinion regarding “this great champion.” Juventus, let us remember, has its own reputation to polish: the club featured centrally in Calciopoli—the Watergate of Italian football, in which clubs were accused of match fixing and other forms of collusion. Serie A has spent more than a decade climbing its way back—over a period of years players fled Italian football because its structures were so corrupt, even for a sports institution, that it could not be trusted.
Why is it easier to question the motives of the victim rather than those of the accused?
The people around Ronaldo are deeply invested in him. Football patriarchs cannot imagine the landscape of football without Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2017, Forbes estimated that he reaped nearly $1 billion dollars just from his social media. He has 122 million Facebook fans, more than any other person. The reach he can provide a sponsor is literally beyond any one else. Nike spokespeople apparently found the rape charges “deeply concerning” and “disturbing.” Ronaldo signed a lifetime contract, worth as much as $1 billion, with Nike in 2016.
But Nike is also in the middle of re-branding—they are centering the corporate brand on athletes who stand for something more than winning. Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, and Mexican women’s soccer player, Nayeli Rangel, have all been held up recently as Nike icons encouraging us all to not “just do it,” but to do more. And to do more in spite of power structures that would grind us down to nothing. Nike, furthermore, has had its own confrontation with #MeToo—nearly a dozen executives were recently pushed out of the company after women employees conducted a survey about experiences with harassment and bullying, and took its results directly to the company CEO.
The agreement between Mayorga’s lawyer and Ronaldo’s team is just one more document in a mountain of documents describing arrangements and accommodations made between and around a small group of men as they shore up the fundamentally corrupt power structures they deploy in order to mine the sports universe for its resources. Given the piles of evidence documenting the corruption of Ronaldo and his management team, one ought to treat Mayorga’s charge on its face as credible, as worth taking seriously.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s fans don’t want to hear any of this. Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus are some of the biggest players in that power structure, corporations that nurture and exploit fan identification with their brands and wield it like a shield. They market the sport as beyond politics. They present an escapist spectacle, which fans hunger for. The sense of Ronaldo’s superhumanity is no small part of the pleasure he offers us. His height, his perfect body, his eerily upright posture—in a sport whose most beloved icons are often oddballs (Ronaldinho, Messi, Garrincha) Cristiano Ronaldo offers himself as a monument to masculine perfection. The presentation of Ronaldo as superhuman shrouds both the athlete’s wrongdoings and the rapacity of the corporate thieves running the game. Their sophisticated advertising works to create a troubling sense of intimacy and attachment between fans and their heroes. Those fans turn on survivors of sexual assault.
Why is it easier to question the motives of the victim rather than those of the accused? On social media a common retort of these fans to anyone that chooses to believe Mayorga is, “were you in the room?” Beyond the obvious rhetorical nature of the comment, there’s something revealing about it—it expresses a wish. They picture themselves in that room. They imagine themselves as Cristiano Ronaldo’s alibi.
The passionate responses to the charges against Ronaldo have been striking. They’ve focused on his athletic achievements and talent. Focus on the figure of the sports icon and you might see this as a story about one woman’s accusation against a successful man. Focus, however, on the sports star embedded in a deeply corrupt and exploitative system, you might see this as a story about the total lack of accountability for men who really and truly do not see themselves as like the rest of us—they see themselves as above the law, with good reason. For all intents and purposes, the people running soccer are.
Ronaldo is an iconic player—but what, we ask, does he represent if not the corruption of football’s greatest talents by its most sinister institutions?
Corruption is so normalized in sports institutions it is hard to imagine what sports would be were this not true. What is the NCAA without the big, self-serving lie of amateurism? What is the NFL without its history of minimizing and disavowing player suffering? What do we do with the ubiquity of sexual assault in college football culture? With domestic violence in men’s professional sports culture? What do we do with MSU, USA Gymnastics, and the IOC—organizations which dismissed athletes complaints and nurtured athlete abuse? With the former Ohio State athletes who are demanding accountability from their own community?
What happened to Kathryn Mayorga matters. For us to really appreciate how it matters, we need to understand that sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum.
The outrage expressed at a woman daring to press charges against Cristiano Ronaldo for sexual assault is part of the same indignity felt by Brett Kavanaugh. For the very few men who benefit from these corporate pyramid schemes, it is unthinkable that the way they treat women should be indicative of anything important about them. More men and women than we wish are also invested in this fantasy—they have sunk their sense of fairness and justice into institutions that require them to keep their own mouths shut, to not do the math, to not see what is right in front of them. White supremacist, patriarchal formations are by definition corrupt.
Let us remember, this system is bad for all of us. To date, in the UK, for example, over 800 boys and men have come forward as victims of sexual abuse at the hands of men working within clubs there. In its review of institutional failings the FA did not find evidence of a pedophile ring or deliberate cover-up. That people running football clubs did not see anything to cover-up is hardly reassuring. If anything, it is a reminder that in these institutions sexually abusive behavior is a defining aspect of their professional culture.
For years, a good number of us have pointed out and detailed FIFA and the IOC’s abusive relationship to women—as athletes, fans, coaches, referees, consumers and as members of sporting communities. Women soccer players have reported ongoing harassment and homophobic abuse by their coaches and administration. Athletes in a wide range of sports are calling out abusive coaching as an abuse of power with dangerous consequences. One team after another protests the exploitation of their sport by grifters, incompetents and creeps. Women’s teams are trotted out every now and again by clubs and federations as if to say “we aren’t all bad—see, we have a women’s team.”
The shambolic administration of women’s football, however, is a raw expression of misogyny and corruption in soccer. As resources are poured into men’s sides, women have been told they are a burden for clubs, an embarrassment, and unmarketable. Fans of women’s soccer see the national teams of powerhouse federations like Brazil and Spain struggle against the active hobbling of their development, training and marketing. Although FIFA is happy to use its support for the Women’s World Cup as evidence of its good intentions, it recently scheduled two major men’s tournament finals on the same day as the women’s final. During the 2015 indictments against FIFA, it’s half-hearted support for the Women’s World Cup in Canada looked very much like putting lipstick on a pig.
If people around a high-profile athlete are eager to pay off victims of sexual harassment and assault, it is because they are used to these kinds of arrangements, which amount to little more than bribes covering for each other’s failings. They do not see women as colleagues, as members of their community to whom they are accountable—they see women as alibis and evidence.
To confront sexism and sexual violence in school and in the workplace is to confront the presence of corruption in the institutions which purport to govern us. Where our relationship to school and work feels compulsory, our relationship to sport feels voluntary. As fans, we choose this world every time we tune in to a match broadcast or put on our favorite player’s shirt. Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo is an iconic player—but what, we ask, does he represent if not the corruption of football’s greatest talents by its most sinister institutions?
Women soccer players have resisted being neglected, and sporadically paraded around, by these organizations. Over the past few years, direct actions, such as strikes and unionization have forced the hand of federations. For example, the national Argentine women’s team refused to convene in 2017 until the federation agreed to pay their promised stipends, and it worked. Around the region, women have broadcast and supported one another in the efforts to change the way football organizations treat them. At times, male players have shown themselves to be allies, such as when the Norwegian men’s team agreed to a slight pay cut to achieve pay equity for its women’s side.
That is not nothing—it is, in fact, something—and speaks to the existence of another sports world. There is the feeling of community and joy which invited so many of us to the court, the track, the field in the first place. This is the sports world committed to the kind of competition which brings out the best in us—the world we make in our weekly pick-up games, in our high school track meets, in our neighborhood gyms. The grassroots world we actually live in. While we demand more of our icons, we can, in the here and now, do more for and with each other. We can listen to the stories people are sharing with us; we can listen to the individuals who are working through their experiences of sexual violation in and around sports. The accusation against Cristiano Ronaldo is not “just” a story about sex: it’s a story about sports. Let us turn our attention away from the icon just long enough so that we can see the world which produces him as untouchable.
Jennifer Doyle is a professor of English at UC Riverside. She writes about art, sports, and gender. She is the author of Campus Sex/Campus Security.
Brenda Elsey is associate professor of History at Hofstra University. She researches and writes on popular culture and politics, particularly sport in Latin America. She is co-author of Futbolera: A History of Women and Sport in Latin America with Josh Nadel. She is co-host of the weekly sport and feminism podcast Burn It All Down.