Last month, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on allegations of sexual assault made against football star Cristiano Ronaldo. Kathryn Mayorga, an American teacher and former aspiring model alleged that the Portugal and Juventus forward raped her in a Las Vegas penthouse in 2009. Mayorga initially reported the case to police, but did not want to name the athlete involved. Under alleged pressure from Ronaldo’s lawyers, Mayorga claims she hastily agreed to a $375,000 settlement, and the incident quietly went away.
Almost a decade later, emboldened by the Me Too movement, Mayorga announced her intention to void the non-disclosure agreement, and offered her full story to Der Spiegel.
Against the backdrop of the Me Too movement, allegations of sexual assault made against one of the world’s most successful and well-recognised athletes should have been the biggest sporting story in the world. The initial response, however, was muted. When Der Spiegel first reported the allegations against Ronaldo in 2017, the story gained almost no momentum. Even after Mayorga’s allegations were published in full last month, many news outlets took days to pick up the story.
Ronaldo vehemently denies the allegations, which he describes as “fake news”. More than a week after Der Spiegel’s story, his club Juventus put out a vague statement on Twitter, praising Ronaldo’s “professionalism and dedication”.
A history of amnesia
Sadly, these kinds of allegations are nothing new. In Australia and abroad, professional sport is littered with incidents and allegations of sexual misconduct and domestic violence.
Former AFL player (and current commentator) Wayne Carey has pleaded guilty to multiple incidents of indecent assault, and was accused by his ex-girlfriend of smashing a wine glass over her face. Retired St Kilda footballer Stephen Milne pleaded guilty to indecent assault. Parramatta Eels fullback Jarryd Hayne is facing a civil trial for an alleged sexual assault in California. Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., the world’s richest athlete, has a long and troubling history of domestic violence. And in 2015, Vice reported that 44 current NFL players had past allegations of sexual misconduct made against them.
These are not the only incidents. What remains a common theme with so many similar cases, however, is the indifferent response. Many athletes suffer short-term reputational damage and a brief period of outrage, before the media cycle moves on, allowing them to quietly return to training camps or media gigs.
Sport’s missed opportunity
The last 12 months have seen a seismic shift in how sexual assault and harassment are viewed, with an unprecedented groundswell of public goodwill and support toward victims. The world of professional sport, however, has remained stubbornly immune to this change.
Karen Willis, the Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia — who previously worked with the National Rugby League to tackle domestic violence — believes there are key structural issues in the sporting world that have limited the impact of the Me Too movement.
“I think perhaps one of the differences is, in media you have got a bit more equality between the genders, and you have powerful women in powerful positions. But in sport, women’s sport is just so far behind the men’s,” Willis tells Crikey.
Indeed, the most prominent recent case of sexual abuse in the athletic world was the conviction of Larry Nassar — a team doctor in the female-dominated sport of gymnastics.
Where star male athletes are involved, however, Willis believes the cult of heroism built around leading men creates a power dynamic where allegations are seldom believed. “It’s difficult to make complaints against them because of their position of power. These men are absolutely seen as heroes,” says Willis.
Willis points out this is exacerbated by the fact that attractive young athletes, like Ronaldo, are so far removed from popular narratives around what sexual offenders look like, that the public struggles to view them as potential perpetrators.
“[Harvey] Weinstein wasn’t a good-looking, fit 20-year-old. If the offender is old and ugly and horrible it’s easier for people to see them that way. But when you’re putting up a young, fit healthy athlete, it’s a little different.”
Many theorise that the victory-obsessed nature of sporting culture also plays into this. When allegations of sexual misconduct are made, accusers are often faced with a collective public unwillingness to hold stars accountable for bad behaviour. As Will Leitch writes in New York Magazine, “when the only goal is winning, it’s quite easy to rationalise your morality into second chances and redemption stories”.
What does it take for a star to be cancelled?
There are, however, some instances where teams and fan bases are willing to cast aside once-beloved stars. In the aftermath of baseball’s steroid scandal in the 2000s, record-breaking hitter Barry Bonds was blackballed and shunned by the league. Evidence of years of doping turned former Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong into a pariah. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s political protests have left him without a team for two years.
The Ronaldo case is a test of whether the sporting world can extend similar moral outrage where allegations of sexual assault are concerned.
Despite the initially lacklustre media coverage, there has been some steadily growing backlash. Police have re-opened the case against him. High-profile sponsors, like Nike and EA Sports, have expressed “concerns”, while Juventus’ stock has dropped 20%.
The sports world may just be next in line for a Me Too reckoning.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.