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Why Has the World Gone Easy on Cristiano Ronaldo?

The soccer superstar is under investigation in the U.S. for an alleged rape, but the case has been largely met with silence.


On the last Saturday in November, Cristiano Ronaldo took the field with a streak of red lipstick smeared across his cheek. This was no fashion statement. The Portuguese soccer star, who joined the Italian juggernaut Juventus on a $340 million deal in July, was lending his international celebrity to a league-wide campaign to curb domestic violence.

The gesture earned Ronaldo easy praise in Italy. After the game, the newspaper Tuttosport ran a front-page photograph of his face, the caption alluding to the campaign’s motto: “A red card to violence.” What the newspaper failed to mention was that two months earlier, Ronaldo had been accused of rape.

In late September, an American woman named Kathryn Mayorga told the German magazine Der Spiegel that Ronaldo had anally raped her during a 2009 party in a Las Vegas hotel room. After the assault, she explained, she had accepted hush money from him and tried to move on with her life. But this year, inspired by the #MeToo movement, she decided to speak out. The Las Vegas police department has reopened its investigation into the allegation, which Ronaldo has repeatedly denied.

Unlike so many other high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct over the past year, however, Ronaldo has faced little backlash from soccer fans, corporate sponsors, the media, or the general public. Mayorga’s allegation “really has not made the kind of stir that you would think it would,” said Elizabeth Farren, one of the lead organizers of the Women’s March movement in Rome. “There hasn’t been a whole lot said about it. It kind of came out and then disappeared.” That’s true not only in Italy, but around the world. “Honestly, I haven’t heard anybody talk about it here at all,” said Jack Bell, a veteran journalist who used to cover soccer for The New York Times. “People want to avert their eyes and perhaps take the approach, ‘Let’s wait to see what transpires.’”

In the era of #MeToo, as allegations of sexual misconduct have toppled one powerful man after another, Ronaldo presents a striking counterexample. Is that because of the particular circumstances of his case? Is it because of gender dynamics in Italy? Or is the psychology of sports fans to blame? Whatever the answer, one thing seems certain: Even as the #MeToo movement has grown in the U.S. and abroad, the Ronaldo case illustrates its limits.

Mayorga was a 25-year-old aspiring model when, on the evening of June 12, 2009, she joined Ronaldo for a hot-tub party at his Las Vegas penthouse. She told Der Spiegel that she was changing in the bathroom when Ronaldo walked in with his penis hanging out of his shorts. He told her that he would let her go if she gave him a kiss. After she reluctantly obliged, he allegedly pulled her into a nearby bedroom and anally raped her while she shouted, “No, no, no, no.”

Mayorga reported the incident to the Las Vegas police the next day, without giving Ronaldo’s name. She underwent a medical exam, which found that her rectum had been penetrated. Later, in an out-of-court settlement, Ronaldo paid her $375,000 as part of a nondisclosure agreement. Der Spiegel’s story quotes a leaked questionnaire given to Ronaldo by his legal team in which he admits that Mayorga “said no and stop several times” during their encounter.

The same week Der Spiegel published its story, Mayorga filed a lawsuit against Ronaldo in Nevada. Ronaldo’s lawyers have acknowledged that the soccer star paid Mayorga for her silence. But they have denied the rape allegation, claiming the sex was consensual and the questionnaire fabricated. (This is not the first time Ronaldo has faced sexual-assault accusations. In 2005, he was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman in a London hotel. Ronaldo maintained his innocence, and police eventually ended the investigation, citing a lack of evidence.)

When such allegations surface against famous men, in industries ranging from entertainment to hospitality to media, the companies who support them are often the first to act. Not so for Ronaldo, the world’s third-highest-paid athlete. Nike, which announced a lifetime sponsorship deal with Ronaldo in 2016, initially said it was “deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations.” EA Sports described the accusation as “concerning” and largely scrubbed Ronaldo from a website promoting the video game FIFA 19, which features Ronaldo as its cover star. But the game remains on shelves, and Ronaldo’s image remains atop EA’s homepage. None of the more than a dozen of companies that sponsor him have cut ties.

Juventus, meanwhile, issued a statement praising Ronaldo’s “professionalism and dedication,” adding, “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.” Fernando Gomes, president of Portugal’s soccer federation, said, “In my name and in the name of the Portuguese Football Federation, I express total solidarity with Cristiano Ronaldo, in a circumstance where his good name and reputation are at risk.”

Some Italian news outlets ignored the rape accusation until it started to affect Juventus’ share price, said Susy Campanale, a soccer journalist who edits the Football Italia website. (The club’s stock stabilized in late October.) And some papers explicitly sided with him. “Cristiano Crucified,” declared the sports daily Corriere dello Sport. Tuttosport ran his photograph beside the headline “Più forte del fango,” or “stronger than the mud-slinging.”

On social media, Italian soccer fans initially split along partisan lines, with Juventus supporters defending him and rivals reveling in the possibility of his downfall. But what controversy there was has since subsided. “People in Italy didn’t care about it at all,” said Ilaria Maroni, an Italian sports writer based in New York. “The majority of the people didn’t believe the story was true. They only believed the girl wanted to get more money out of it.”

To wit, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica was inundated with hostile comments after publishing a letter in October from a 27-year-old woman who criticized Juventus’ statement of support for Ronaldo. Mayorga “cannot say she has been raped,” one commenter wrote. “Either she was giving consent, or she staged the whole thing to get money.”

“It was disconcerting, yet really not that surprising, to see the reaction from women,” said Campanale, of Football Italia. “They tended to range from ‘He’s rich, handsome and successful, he doesn’t need to rape anybody’ to ‘If a woman is raped, she goes to the police straight away and doesn’t accept a payout.’”

Mayorga has not spoken publicly since Der Spiegel published the story, and her lawyer, Leslie Stovall, did not respond to a request for comment. But Antje Windmann, one of the reporters who worked on the story for Der Spiegel, said she has spoken with Mayorga about the reaction to her allegation. “She was desperate and heartbroken about what people think about her now—that she wants his money or that she’s a disappointed lover,” Windmann said. “She felt completely helpless.”

The allegation is not the first #MeToo claim to meet a cold reception in Italy. After Italian film actress and director Asia Argento accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault in 2017, she said she felt “doubly crucified”—first by the assault itself, then by the hostile reaction in her home country. Argento’s case offers a prime example of Italy’s broader “victim-blaming culture,” said Farren, the Women’s March organizer.

“#MeToo, I think it’s fair to say, just has not been a cultural phenomenon in Italy the way it has been elsewhere,” said Rachel Vogelstein, who runs the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The media still remains hostile to women who speak out, so I think the conversation continues to remain an uphill battle.”

“What Happens When the World’s Most Famous Athlete Is Accused of Rape?” a New York magazine story asked in early October. “This is the most famous athlete on the planet credibly accused of a heinous crime of sexual assault,” Will Leitch wrote, referring to Ronaldo. “It is unprecedented, and it is going to tell us everything about how the world of #MeToo is either going to crash against the world of sports or become a part of it.”

The answer thus far to the article’s question is clear: Not much happens at all. Ronaldo continues to play every week, with nary a mention about the allegations against him. 

While Italy’s resistance to the #MeToo movement has certainly helped Ronaldo, so too has his prowess on the pitch. “Soccer is an extremely protective environment” in Italy, Farren said. “Soccer comes before almost anything.” But it’s not just soccer. #MeToo has yet to make inroads in the sports world, where tribal affinities often outweigh ethical concerns—even in the U.S., where the movement originated and has been the most influential.

Big-name American athletes have been accused of sexual misconduct over the years, often with only minor consequences. Former L.A. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger were accused of sexual assault at the peak of their careers; they lost endorsement deals, but not their jobs. Their cases also predated #MeToo. In a more recent case, quarterback Jameis Winston was the number-one pick in the 2015 NFL draft despite a rape accusation against him, and he continued to play this season after a second allegation surfaced in September.

“Broadly speaking, the world of professional sports to date has not really been significantly changed by #MeToo,” said Vogelstein, the Council on Foreign Relations official. “That world is really notorious for silencing claims of sexual violence.”

The accusation against Ronaldo differs in some important respects from many of the stories that have surfaced during the #MeToo era. Mayorga was not Ronaldo’s subordinate, or even involved in the sports industry; he was unlikely to make or break her career. Unlike Weinstein or Bill Cosby, Ronaldo has not been charged with a crime. It’s possible that soccer fans, the media, and corporate sponsors are withholding judgment until Las Vegas police completes its investigation. Then again, accused men have suffered professional repercussions before the conclusion of official inquiries, or even in their absence.

The muted reaction may have more to do with the gender dynamics of sports than the details of the legal process. “Sports fandom is so invested in this elite form of masculinity that really in some ways is consistent with sexual aggression,” said Susan Cahn, a history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo who studies gender in sports. “Male athletes in their prime really represent a kind of virility that’s physical but also sexual.”

Fans “want to escape daily life, and so anything that enters into the sports realm or enters into this escape mechanism really turns them off,” said Adam Earnheardt, an expert on sports fandom who chairs the communications department at Youngstown State University in Ohio. When NFL players knelt during the national anthem, some fans were upset simply because the protests “were violating their escape,” Earnheardt said. “They didn’t want to think about politics.”

Still, he said, Roethlisberger faced criticism from fans who once cheered for him. And memories of the accusation against Bryant have lingered: In October, he was removed from the jury of a cartoon film festival he was slated to judge after backlash from the animation community. “The Ronaldo story would have had greater attention, would have had probably a bigger reaction, if he were a sports star in the United States,” Earnheardt said.

Juventus has ten official supporters clubs in the United States. Fabrizio Capobianco, an Italian expat, founded the Silicon Valley branch in 2015. He said his club’s membership has almost doubled, to more than 100 people, since Ronaldo joined the team. “He has changed the way the team plays,” Capobianco said. “They just walk into the pitch knowing they are going to win because the best player on the planet is playing with them.”

As for the rape accusation, Capobianco says it hasn’t been a major concern for the California-based Juventus fans who gather every weekend to cheer on their new hero. In Italy, he noted, “Soccer is first and everything else comes after.”  

“As long as he doesn’t actually go to jail and he can play on Sunday, I think people will be fine,” Capobianco said. “We’re hoping this disappears.”