Why has the Ronaldo rape allegation been met with such tepid coverage?


Maybe #MeToo doesn’t travel across international waters.

One of the biggest sports superstars on the planet has been accused of rape, the Las Vegas police have reportedly reopened an investigation, and the reaction is less than overwhelming.

Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best living footballer, has vehemently denied allegations made in a leading German publication by a 34-year-old American woman named Kathryn Mayorga.

The two met in 2009 in Las Vegas – that is not in dispute, as there are photos of them together – and Mayorga was invited to party with Ronaldo in a suite at the Palms Hotel and Casino after working in front of a hotel as a model. He was about to move from Manchester United to Real Madrid, for a then-record fee. According to her account in Der Spiegel, Ronaldo sodomized her and then fell to his knees to explain how he was a good person except for the “one percent.”

Mayorga’s telling is graphic and unsparing: Ronaldo approached her with his genitals exposed and forced sex. She got a medical examination. She went to the police. She signed a non-disclosure agreement. And Der Spiegel reports a document in which Ronaldo admitted to non-consensual sex – one that “contains a version of how Ronaldo experienced that night, including the following quote: ‘She said no and stop several times.’”

And on Tuesday, the case was reportedly reopened.

“It’s amazing this story doesn’t have more legs,” says Katie Phang, a partner and trial lawyer at Berger Singerman in Miami. “People are totally enamored with him.”

We all know the backdrop. The #MeToo movement has brought unprecedented attention to sexual assault in America. The careers of politicians and celebrities have ended in the aftermath of survivors’ stories. The biggest story in the U.S. right now, by far, involves assault allegations made against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. We are finally in a world where people are listening.

It’s just that some aspects of the global sports complex make it a little harder to listen.

(Associated Press)
(Associated Press)

Many, if not most, of the initial headlines about these allegations focused on Ronaldo’s response. One example: “Cristiano Ronaldo dismisses the rape allegations against him as ‘fake news’ after his accuser published a detailed account of her story in a German outlet.”

Right away the power of the storyline was put back into the hands of the superstar. It was the same in 2005, when Ronaldo was accused of rape in a London hotel. The case was dropped. “The 20-year-old, who recently signed a contract extension with United which will keep him at Old Trafford until 2010, steadfastly refuted the claims,” wrote the Telegraph, “and is now looking forward to Sunday’s Premiership match at West Ham without the allegations hanging over him.”

The narrative is from the perspective of the star, who is painted as having to shoulder the weight of an accusation.

Back then, a statement from Ronaldo’s team said, “The club has fully supported Cristiano Ronaldo throughout this difficult time and is pleased that the case has now been closed.” In other words: let’s move on to football.

Accusers of athletes do not have multi-million dollar franchises to support them “throughout this difficult time.” And if those franchises want their story out, there are reporters hanging around the pitch every day of the year.

In the era of social media, the ability to direct the story is even stronger. That’s where Ronaldo called these allegations “Fake news.” He didn’t address the specifics. “Fake news” is simply a redirect of blame onto others. But a superstar saying “Fake News” is real news, because Ronaldo said it. And millions of social media followers help.

Beneath all this is the tacit expectation that women are going to throw themselves at athletes – especially attractive athletes – and sex will inevitably transpire.

“There is this understood culture that exists and that’s part of the issue in sports,” Phang says. “I don’t think it’s a fantasy world, but I do think what hurts you if you’re trying to prosecute is there’s this bias or prejudice you have to confront up front. What are you expecting to happen if you go to a hotel with Cristiano Ronaldo?”

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The #MeToo era has reestablished a lot about the nature of consent, and how “no” means “no” in any situation, whatever the woman is wearing or drinking. That sentiment is tested, either silently or overtly, when the details of an alleged assault emerge. If indeed Mayorga said no – which a document indicates – that makes everything else moot. Or it should anyway.

Then there’s the issue of payment. Mayorga took $375,000 to keep quiet. According to Der Spiegel, she signed it “out of fear for herself and her family.” Her new lawyer is claiming she signed the document under duress, which (he argues) would obviate it. The likely responses in the public domain are obvious: she’s out for a payday (which was constantly alleged in the Jameis Winston case), or the payment indicates some measure of guilt on his part. Here again, #MeToo is a factor.

More than a few women are coming forward after keeping quiet for years. In Mayorga’s world, those years have been hellish and flooded with regret. She has alleged “severe emotional and bodily injuries including but not limited to anal contusions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and major depression.” Why is she coming forward now? That will be asked plenty of times. But there’s something else to keep in mind. Just because she has changed doesn’t mean the facts of the case have changed.

“Before #MeToo,” Phang says, “you may not have thought you would give the benefit of the doubt.”

For almost everyone, from soccer executives to sponsors to fans to Ronaldo himself, it’s easiest for this to vanish. There’s even a line in the Der Spiegel story that claims “Ronaldo paid for the Las Vegas case using sponsor money.” Reckoning with a credible rape accusation requires mental, legal and financial recalibration that most people just don’t want to do. A lot of parents wouldn’t want to explain to their kids why that Ronaldo jersey probably shouldn’t be worn with pride anymore.

Ronaldo isn’t just Ronaldo, he’s a soccer institution who drives far more dollars than he earns. He is a part of the football firmament. And to most Americans, he’s far away.

Millions of people want to hear from Cristiano Ronaldo. Far fewer want to hear from Kathryn Mayorga.