Is Football Arriving At It’s #MeToo Moment?

by | Oct 2, 2018

Der Spiegel has a reputation to protect. The left-leaning, weekly political magazine has, after all, a long history of uncovering misconduct and malpractice within German political life. In 1962, its accusations of bribery against the then West German defence minister Franz Josef Strauß led to their offices being occupied by the police for three months on trumped up treason charges, the eventual removal of the minister from government, and ultimately the transition of West German political life away from its authoritarian roots and towards the more modern form of democracy with which we are familiar today. Considering the nature of what they do, it’s hardly surprising that the magazine finds itself fighting a near-perpetual stream of attempts to refute and discredit their work, and last weekend the threats came – and not for the first time – from Gestifute, the agency which represents – amongst many, many others – probably the most recognised footballer on the planet.

The #MeToo movement leapt to the public’s attention almost exactly a year ago. On the fifteenth of August 2017, the actor Alyssa Milano sent out a tweet encouraging others to draw attention to sexual assault and harassment through sharing their experiences of it. Within twenty-four hours, the hashtag had been tweeted more than half a million times, whilst Facebook would later report that 45% of users in the United States had a friend who had posted using the term. Over the twelve months since then, it has spread through politics, the military, medicine, music, theatre and other work environments, and its scale has made it one of the defining social media movements of the last decade. Whilst sport has inevitably become caught up in the phenomenon, though, professional football has, in spite of headlines such as this (from February of this year), largely escaped the glare of the media in this respect.

Until now, that is.

The allegations made in Der Spiegel over the weekend concern events that took place in a Las Vegas nightclub and hotel in June 2009, as Cristiano Ronaldo completed the finer details of his transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid. Ronaldo was in Las Vegas on vacation with his brother-in-law and cousin, and it is alleged that Ronaldo raped a woman, Kathryn Mayorga, before paying her £275,000 to stop her pursuing criminal charges and ensuring her silence on the matter. The story of the settlement has been alluded to on the fringes of the mainstream media for a couple of years now – with particular reference to the player’s reported baulking at the size of the settlement offered – without having really broken into the mainstream media, but last weekend’s publication of a detailed interview with Mayorga has changed that, and probably irrevocably.

Der Spiegel states that it has documents in its possession, signed by Ronaldo and forwarded to them by the whistleblowing site Football Leaks, which they state give every indication of confirming the story related to them by Kathryn Mayorga as true. This came about in response to a statement issued to Reuters by Gestifute’s lawyer Christian Hertz, in which it was stated that, “We have been instructed to immediately assert all existing claims under press law against [Der Spiegel], in particular compensation for moral damages in an amount corresponding to the gravity of the infringement, which is probably one of the most serious violations of personal rights in recent years”, and that Mayorga “refuses to come forward and confirm the veracity of the accusation”, allegations which Der Spiegel described as “perfidious”, with the magazine adding that, “Should she do so, according to the deal, she would have to pay the money back to Ronaldo and possibly damages as well.”

In short, the magazine lists three specific reasons behind why Mayorga decided that now was the right time for her to tell this story. Firstly, they state that she has new legal representation who considers that “the non-disclosure agreement is not legally binding and he has filed a civil complaint against Ronaldo in Kathryn Mayorga’s name.” Secondly, they state that, “The #MeToo movement has also given many victims more courage and self-confidence”, and that “She says she has spent many hours in front of her computer reading the stories of other women.” Thirdly, they state that Mayorga considers that going public with this story is “the only chance to learn whether there are other women out there who say they were sexually abused by Ronaldo.”

The events of the last few days in Washington DC have demonstrated why some women remain reticent towards coming forward with such allegations. The response to these was a hurricane of accusation and counter-accusation which included – and this can be weirdly easy to forget , at times – public comment from arguably the most powerful person on earth, the President of the United States of America. Small wonder, then, that women looking on at that particular debacle might think twice before going public with allegations of their own against powerful and/or wealthy men. And whilst Cristiano Ronaldo might not quite have the same level of global profile as Donald Trump, the statement threatening legal action against Der Spiegel offers a hint of the lengths to which those charged with such offences in public are prepared to go in order to protect their brand. Der Spiegel, in turn, argues that there is more than a hint at the veracity of their story in the fact that no-one attempted to sue them – despite threats to do so – in the year and a half since they first reported on it.

But how are we to process the reports of the last couple of days? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there has been considerable reflection in the media over the last year or so over how to treat them, and there are both ethical and legal considerations to take into account. Writing in Niemens Reports earlier this year, Maryclaire Dale, a reporter for The Associated Press, noted that, “More people were acknowledging a history of sexual abuse, making the allegations in high-profile cases perhaps more plausible”, whilst Vanity Fair journalist Gabriel Sherman (who wrote extensively about the various misdemeanours of the now-disgraced former head of Fox News, Roger Ailes), suggested that, “To me, the story really is about the system of enablers that powerful men set up to protect this abhorrent behavior, and also silence women from speaking out.”

We should acknowledge that it can be difficult in cases that feel as though they amount to much more than “he said, she said” (even though the documents leaked to Der Spiegel could be considered evidence that there may be more documentary evidence in this case than merely two conflicting reports of one night almost a decade ago), to know exactly who to believe. But – and this is an important distinction – there’s a huge gap between keeping an open mind on specific cases as they come up and a reflex reaction of disbelieving the claimant. If one message has been louder and clearer than any other from the last twelve months, it has been that we should all be, at the very least, listening and absorbing to women’s accounts of sexual assault. Nobody can force anybody else to believe every single allegation or every statement that’s made, or every denial of an allegation. We can, however, show empathy when we hear these stories and, certainly in cases where the law is getting involved, we have to step back from passing comment that might be considered prejudicial to that process. We do, after all, want fair trials to follow where it is decided that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, don’t we?

This is a story concerning an intersection of one of the defining political movements of our time and possibly – some might even argue “definitely” – the most famous and talked about professional footballer on the planet. It took, however, until this morning (Tuesday) for a lot of news outlets to give the story the attention that we might have expected. The relative quiet on the subject in this country thus far can, in the UK at least, probably be explained by a degree of reticence on the part of both journalists and editors to break our famously strict libel laws. It certainly seems inconceivable that the matter wasn’t discussed at considerable length on news desks everywhere since it broke – again – over the weekend and anything written in the national press on the subject would undoubtedly have to be passed through libel lawyers first. That said, however, this is all a very delicate balancing act and the press was yesterday being criticised on social media for failing to give it the prominence that some feel it deserves quickly enough. For every person quietly agreeing that the media taking steps to ensure that they don’t libel anyone is a positive development, there will be others who consider this to have been a demonstration of buckling under the weight of the legal threats already made against Der Spiegel, or more.

As of this morning, the New York Times is reporting that the Las Vegas Police Department have reopened a case on the matter, with a public statement which read as follows:

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department responded to a call of sexual assault on June 13, 2009. At the time the report was taken, the victim did not provide detectives with the location of the incident or suspect description. A medical exam was conducted.

As of September 2018, the case has been reopened and our detectives are following up on information being provided by the victim. This is an on-going investigation and no further details will be released at this time.

As such – and we might contend that this would still be the case if this announcement hadn’t been made – it would be improper to comment further on the merits of this particular case, and those who are angry about the torrent of disclosures and accusations that have poured out over the last year or so should be reminded that baseless allegations would, if anything, only be likely to be used by a defence team as a demonstration that their client cannot receive a fair trial, should this ever come to pass. Cynics might well argue that the body of evidence in a good number of recent cases suggests that there is, at a macro level, a tendency for the victims in such cases to be those least likely to receive a “fair trial”, but this viewpoint doesn’t negate this case being where it is at this precise moment in time.

Will there be more allegations made against professional footballers over the coming weeks, months, and years? The only logical answer to this is “Who knows?”, but this isn’t to say that there won’t be. The very nature of #MeToo, as a product of the digital/social media age, is scattergun, and this means that it is very difficult to tell at this point which direction the movement may take next. As supporters of football clubs, though, there are things that we can do in order to demonstrate that we are serious about our commitment to making predatory behaviour a thing of the past. We – and yes, I’m addressing the men here – should be talking to each other about it. We should be calling out misogyny where we see it, just as we should do with racism of homophobia. We should recognise that our partisan alliances have the ability to cloud our judgement when discussing this subject in relation to professional football. And we should listen to those who state that they’ve been on the receiving end of predatory behaviour rather than dismissing it out of hand.

There are different ways in which we can show our support and solidarity with them, and we have it within our power to be able to make a difference. And the power that comes with consent, we might reflect, is precisely what was taken away from those whose stories have emerged into the spotlight over the last year or so. Perhaps the ultimate point of #MeToo is that the foul behaviour that we have read so much about is systemic, and that as such society needs to change. But it is also made up personal testimonies, of individual stories, of human beings of considerable bravery, but also of appalling behaviour by men who should, by any reasonable standard, have known better. Whether that latter grouping turns out to include the most recognised professional footballer on the planet… well, we shall see. But either the innocence or guilt of this one particular footballer shouldn’t blind us to the facts that this is a widespread issue that has crept across our culture like a disease, and that this disease has to be eradicated.