We need to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo. (Luca Bruno/AP)

Her face doesn’t adorn billboards across the globe. Her soccer skills aren’t lauded by millions of fans donning her jersey. Her likeness isn’t carved out of bronze in football-crazed towns where she’s beloved, and she doesn’t know what it feels like to be the face of the most popular sport in the world.

But that doesn’t mean Kathryn Mayorga’s voice shouldn’t be heard.

I’m ashamed to say that it took me longer than I’d like to admit to finally steel myself to read Der Spiegel’s extensive report detailing Mayorga’s account of what happened to her in Cristiano Ronaldo’s penthouse hotel suite in Las Vegas on June 13, 2009.

Feeling defeated at the very sight of the headline on my screen, my mind skipped ahead to arguments from the droves of soccer fans ready to defend the character of a powerful man they don’t actually know just because he has a lot of talent. I felt exhausted just thinking about all the insults that would be hurled Mayorga’s way. We’ve seen this scenario play out far too many times before to count.

So, for a little while, I avoided it. But not anymore.

If you’re unfamiliar with the allegations against Ronaldo, I urge you to read the full report in Der Spiegel. The German-based news outlet first published a report in April 2017 after receiving documents from website Football Leaks alleging that Ronaldo had raped an American woman in his Las Vegas hotel suite. Just last month, the same publication released Mayorga’s account of what happened when the former model and teacher decided it was time to speak up after seeing so many other women bravely come forward against their own perpetrators as part of the #MeToo movement.

On Oct. 10, Ronaldo’s Las Vegas attorney, Peter S. Christiansen, issued a statement that says claims that the soccer star raped a woman are “complete fabrications” and the encounter was consensual. Christiansen doesn’t deny Ronaldo and the woman reached a non-disclosure agreement in 2010.

Sports so often serve as a safe space for fans from the rest of the world’s news – something to consume while distracting ourselves from the realities we sometimes can’t muster up the strength to confront. Sports provide joy and encourages camaraderie. It even helps shape our identity.

But we should not avert our eyes from something as serious as this.

Of course, issues such as this aren’t just about Ronaldo. This isn’t the first time a powerful male athlete has had serious allegations brought against him. And we all know that it won’t be the last time, either.

But if we downplay cases such as these, we’re telling victims that their potential, their health, their life, and their well-being doesn’t matter. In sports, guilt and consequence is directly related to an athlete’s skill and potential. It’s in large part why Ray Rice is no longer in the NFL, but Jameis Winston still is.

This isn’t women against men. It’s right against wrong. Many women grow up idolizing professional athletes just as much as any of their male peers. We idolize them for the same reasons, too: Because they excel at sports, they provide us with thrilling moments that we’ll always cherish, and they give us a tribe of fellow fans with whom we can cheer. They’re larger-than-life, brave on the biggest stage and accomplishing what most of us can only dream about doing. We hurt with them when they lose, we celebrate them when they win.

So why then, can’t we do a better job of holding them accountable for their wrongdoings? That little girl in the stands is no less valuable than the little boy sitting beside her, but for far too long our actions – denying, shaming, downplaying – in the face of serious allegations have been saying the exact opposite.

How the Ronaldo case is handled will reveal a lot about where the sports world stands with the #MeToo movement. Ready or not, the movement is here – and we have a duty to pay attention.

But so far, responses from the soccer world have left me wondering if we’ve learned anything at all.

For example, last week, Ronaldo’s Serie A club, Juventus, finally addressed the allegations, coming up with this absurdly tone deaf statement of support and praise for Ronaldo’s “professionalism.”

Now, check out what Portugal’s Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, said in support of Ronaldo.

“People need to understand once and for all that there’s one thing that is presumption of innocence,” Costa said. “It is not enough for someone to be accused of something to be guilty of it.”

That’s a fair statement. But he didn’t stop there. He, too, went on to base his support on Ronaldo’s soccer skills.

“If there’s something we have proof of is that he is an extraordinary professional, an extraordinary sportsman, an extraordinary footballer, and someone who has honoured and given prestige to Portugal, and certainly what we all wish for is that nothing can ever stain that record of Ronaldo,” Costa said.

Search “Ronaldo” in your social media platform of choice and you’ll find the debates surrounding his name still have far more to do with his on-field performance than the disturbing allegations facing him.

I understand the discomfort. I understand the denial, too. It’s convenient to keep on cheering, focusing only on the game and ignoring the rest of it, stowing it away in the generically-labeled “off-field issues” box in our brains, choosing instead to stand by our team and our players.

I’ve done it myself in the past, more times than I’d like to admit, both out of sheer ignorance and disappointment-induced denial. But that “box” is getting increasingly heavy.

So yes, let’s keep talking about the goals, the wins, the losses. But it’s how we choose to talk about the human element, including serious allegations such as the one Ronaldo faces now, that will say a lot about how we as a society respect women and others who come forward.

Kathryn Mayorga is not alone. We owe it to her, and to everyone else who speaks up, to put aside our fandom for a moment and listen to the voices that have been hushed far too long.

Because if I can’t tell the little girl in the stands that her team stands by her, too, then what am I even doing here?

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