The Old Lady With The Tin Ear: Juventus, Ronaldo & Social Media

by | Oct 5, 2018

It frequently feels these days as though there is no news story that can’t – or won’t – be made more depressing by the reaction to it. It’s taken a while to filter through, but the allegations of rape made against Cristiano Ronaldo in a Las Vegas hotel room in 2009 have slowly started to filter out over the course of last week following a detailed report published by the German news magazine Der Spiegel last weekend.

There has been criticism of the slowness with which news desks reacted to the story, and some of this is fair, especially when we consider the fact the rest of the media broadly ignored Der Spiegel’s intial reporting of it in April 2017. When we last touched upon this story earlier this week, though, it was just starting to make its way to the back pages of the mainstream media, and in the modern media environment a couple of days can feel like an eternity. This, however, was not particularly surprising. Stories concerning allegations of this nature are a legal minefield, and it’s highly likely that anything that was going to be printed on the subject would have to be run through a phalanx of media lawyers first. As Der Spiegel ran with its story on Saturday morning, Monday was likely the first time that such oversight could be obtained from legal departments.

So, Der Spiegel ran their report, Cristiano Ronaldo, using the very Trumpesque “fake, fake news”, stated his rebuttal of them via Instagram, and the Las Vegas Police Department confirmed that they had reopened the case of the basis of the new information available following the interview published last week, although whether this results in the matter going as far as legal proceedings remains very much in the balance. It might have been hoped that all would fall quiet regarding this particular case – we would never wish to infer that people should “shut up about it” or, considerably worse, that others should stop coming forward whould there be other other football related claims that fall under the #meetoo umbrella – until the police confirm whether they feel that they have enough evidence to progress the matter further.

Instead, of course, the social media response was as depressingly regressive and partisan as we’ve come to expect in recent years. Ronaldo fans leapt to his defence. Fans of other clubs and players attacked back. And within this – for the want of a better word – “debate”, the overwhelming majority of people concerned seemed primarily motivated by their allegiance by the identity of the team that he plays for or the teams that he had played for. The severity of the allegations made and the seriousness of the nature of sexual assault and rape seemed largely forgotten as everyone hunkered down in their bunkers and started lobbing their verbal grenades about.

Much as we might have wished that things would be different, this was entirely predictable. There are millions upon millions of terrible people on this planet, and a not unreasonable proportion of them partake of football and use social media in some way or another. All that anybody that would seek to break this noxious culture can do is stick to their guns: take the allegations seriously, listen empathetically to those making them, understand the anger that underpins the #metoo movement and why it exists. And listen. For God’s sake, listen.

All of this should, really, be obvious, but such is the state of perpetual frenzy in which we live nowadays that obvious doesn’t even seem to mean obvious any more. Presumably spooked by the suggestion that one of their most bankable assets has been behaving in such a way, both Nike and Electronic Arts (whose FIFA 19 game was released last week to considerable fanfare and with Ronaldo on its front cover) issued public statements that might be considered placeholders – recognition that this news story exists and concern at its severity without too much further comment.

Such is the polarised nature of discourse these days that both companies attracted a degree of criticism from both ends of the spectrum of public opinion for doing so, but we might contend that they have been put on the spot by Der Spiegel’s report and it feels difficult to imagine what else they might have done under these circumstances. Immediately cancelling their contracts with Ronaldo would likely prove to be very expensive indeed, and to do anything other than sit on the fence and allow due legal process to be followed feels, for the time being, like the only action that really be takent, especially when we consider the extent to which social media abhors a vacuum and the pressure that they were under to say something, anything.

But then Juventus spoke.

Late on Thursday afternoon, the club’s English language Twitter account said the following, over the course of two tweets:

Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus.

The events allegedly dating back to almost 10 years ago do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion.

The first tweet – the first sentence reproduced above – feels fairly innocuous in isolation. The second, however, blows that theory away with something of a flourish. We might have expected that a football club with an account in its second language that has almost 1.2m followers might have understood that there is a generally accepted protocol for the discussion of sensitive matter such as this. On this occasion, however, this doesn’t seem to have been the case. At best, the club’s reaction comes off as hopelessly tone deaf, trivialising a very serious matter indeed, a feeling further accentuated by their decision to promote their women’s team in their very next tweet.

To be clear, it doesn’t matter whether the incident referred to took place “almost 10 years ago.” It doesn’t matter from a legal viewpoint, and it doesn’t matter from an ethical one either. And whilst one may consider it to be true, the matter of whether Cristiano Ronaldo has in the past been a “great champion” is similarly irrelevant. Talented people, as the events of the last twelve months have shown time and time again, are plenty capable of appalling behaviour.

And Juventus’ tweets might even be considered something else altogether. They may be considered by some as something akin to an attempt on the part of the club to influence any future legal proceedings in the United States of America. In the United Kingdom, there are laws in place which control what can be said regarding legal proceedings because it is so commonplace for defence lawyers to argue that, because their client is so famous and the story of their trial has already been so widely reported, it is impossible for him or her to get a fair trial in which a jury reaches its verdict based on the arguments raised in court alone.

These laws fall under the umbrella of Contempt of Court, and these work somewhat differently in the USA, where Contempt of Court is generally restricted to actions by the parties to the proceeding, and not third parties. The defence might, under such circumstances, argue that pre-trial coverage had been so pervasive as to make it effectively impossible to find a non-tainted jury. However, the remedy in that event would be to change the venue of the proceeding to somewhere else in Nevada. It is considered normal for extra screening of potential jurors to take place before a trial involving such a high profile individual starts.

So, let’s be clear on a couple of things before we say anything else. We understand that, having spent almost £90m on the player just three months ago, Juventus will be keen to protect their investment. We understand that they were expected to make a public statement on the matter, and that the club has been put into something of an unenviable position by the reports of the last week. We also understand that, in the eyes of the law at the very least, Cristiano Ronaldo is innocent of the crime that he has been alleged to commit until proven guilty. And we understand that the club has a global fanbase to which it has to speak.

Having said all of that, though, it is troubling that the official account of a football club is even offering opinions on the rights or wrongs of the case. Were any future trial to have been taking place in the United Kingdom with reporting restrictions having put in place, there’s a strong likelihood that the club’s social media comments would have been considered Contempt of Court, and the fact that any potential future trial won’t be taking place in the UK – and, of course, may well not end up taking case in Nevada – doesn’t alter the fact that to say what was said in its name wasn’t appalling, stupid, or both.

And we use the word “stupid” deliberately. The club might have attracted criticism had they remained silent on the matter, but it would have been entirely understandable had they done as Nike and EA did. As things stand, however, they stand accused of downplaying the allegations, from which it is only a short hop to the viewpoint that the club doesn’t consider sexual assault or rape to be as important as defending one of the best footballers in the world, so long as he’s playing for them. In other words, the club has overstepped the mark in the worst possible way, and it cannot expect a great deal of sympathy for the slating that it is currently receiving all over the internet and, increasingly, in the media. Considering everything else that they might have said in response to these reports, the hole in which the club finds itself this evening in terms of its reputation is one entirely of its own making.