Ronaldo Is a Sports Icon of Corruption

Instead of focusing on Ronaldo the mega-star, consider the player who is a victim of a system that is extremely corrupt and abusive. Then you would recognize this for what it is: a narrative about men who believe they are above the law who are completely unaccountable.

Last month, Kathryn Mayorga filed a civil case in Nevada’s Clark County District Court, alleging that mega-soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo raped her in 2009. She reported the rape to the police, had a medical examination, and filed criminal charges at the time. Following the advice of an attorney who had no experience with the type of legal system she was dealing with, she withdrew the charges. For her quiet, she was compensated with $375,000 dollars. Football Leaks sent papers about the case to the German magazine Der Spiegel last year. They published the report, Ronaldo vowed to sue, Der Spiegel persuaded Mayorga to speak out, and Ronaldo threatened to sue once more. Mayorga has faced and will face threats and scrutiny from a variety of sources, including lawyers, businesses, investigators, and legions of followers. This isn’t the first time Ronaldo has been accused of sexual assault, but it is the most serious so far.

After the initial media cycle and before the next begins, it’s good pausing to evaluate why and how this topic is important. It’s important to remember the environment in which Mayorga’s tale broke—Football Leaks isn’t known for publicizing rape allegations. Transfer transactions, sponsorship contracts, the use of shell firms in tax evasion, self-dealing, match-fixing, and money laundering are all within its jurisdiction.

Records documenting Mayorga’s lawyer’s conversations with Ronaldo’s team are tucked away in that cache of data. These are far from the only records in the Football Leaks archive relating to Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo evaded paying $35 million euros in taxes in 2014 by diverting $63.5 million of his income to a tax haven in the British Virgin Islands. He eventually pleaded guilty to four counts of tax evasion, agreed to pay $19 million euros in restitution, and accepted a two-year probationary term. Football Leaks exposes the financial corruption perpetrated by a network of men—agents, team owners, players, and officials—who move through hotel lobbies, business boardrooms, and mansions that resemble corporate compounds in superbly fitted suits.

The way Mayorga’s complaint was handled—and the way Mayorga herself was treated—must be seen as part of the sport’s culture, as an embodiment of both patriarchy and corruption. When questioned about the reappearance of Mayorga’s story, Ronaldo dismissed it as “false news.” He used the same rhetoric in March in reaction to suspicions that Spanish officials were seeking criminal charges against his team after they turned down an early settlement offer. He implored his supporters not to believe “false news” intended to detract from the “wonderful moment” of his return to form in an Instagram post.

Coaches, club directors, sponsors, and fans are all expected to come to Ronaldo’s defense. Juventus praised the player’s “professionalism and dedication,” stressing that the rape allegations have no bearing on their perception of “this wonderful champion.” Let us not forget that Juventus has its own reputation to uphold: the club was centrally involved in Calciopoli, the Italian football equivalent of the Watergate scandal, in which clubs were accused of match rigging and other sorts of cooperation. Players deserted Italian football for years because its institutions were so corrupt, even for a sports institution, that it could not be trusted. Serie A has spent more than a decade climbing its way back.

Why is it so much simpler to question the victim’s intentions than the accused’s?

Ronaldo’s entourage has a lot of faith in him. The landscape of football without Cristiano Ronaldo is unimaginable to football patriarchs. According to Forbes, he made about $1 billion dollars only from social media in 2017. He has more Facebook fans than anyone else, at 122 million. He can give a sponsor with a reach that no one else can match. The rape allegations were supposedly “very alarming” and “disturbing” to Nike officials. In 2016, Ronaldo signed a multi-billion dollar lifetime contract with Nike.

However, Nike is undergoing a rebranding initiative, focusing the corporate brand on athletes who represent something other than winning. Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, and Nayeli Rangel, a Mexican women’s soccer star, have all been held up as Nike icons recently, inspiring us all to do more than “just do it.” And to do more in the face of power structures that would suffocate us. Nike, too, has had its own #MeToo battle—nearly a dozen executives were recently fired after female employees created a poll about their experiences with harassment and bullying and presented the results to the company’s CEO.

The agreement between Mayorga’s lawyer and Ronaldo’s team is just one more document in a mountain of documents describing arrangements and accommodations made between and around a small group of men as they shore up the fundamentally corrupt power structures they deploy in order to mine the sports universe for its resources. Given the mountains of evidence proving Ronaldo’s and his management team’s misconduct, Mayorga’s claim should be taken seriously.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s supporters aren’t interested in hearing any of this. Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus are some of the biggest players in that power structure, corporations that nurture and exploit fan identification with their brands and wield it like a shield. They promote the sport as being unaffected by politics. They present an escapist spectacle, which fans hunger for. The sense of Ronaldo’s superhumanity is no small part of the pleasure he offers us. Cristiano Ronaldo displays himself as a monument to masculine perfection with his height, faultless body, and eerily erect posture in a sport where the most popular icons are often oddballs (Ronaldinho, Messi, Garrincha). Ronaldo’s portrayal as a superhuman obscures both the athlete’s wrongdoings and the rapacity of the game’s corporate robbers. Their sophisticated advertising works to create a troubling sense of intimacy and attachment between fans and their heroes. Those fans turn on survivors of sexual assault.

Why is it so much simpler to question the victim’s intentions than the accused’s? On social media a common retort of these fans to anyone that chooses to believe Mayorga is, “were you in the room?” Beyond the obvious rhetorical nature of the comment, there’s something revealing about it—it expresses a wish. They envision themselves in that space. They saw themselves as Cristiano Ronaldo’s saviors.

The passionate responses to the charges against Ronaldo have been striking. They’ve focused on his athletic achievements and talent. Focus on the figure of the sports icon and you might see this as a story about one woman’s accusation against a successful man. Focus, however, on the sports star embedded in a deeply corrupt and exploitative system, you might see this as a story about the total lack of accountability for men who really and truly do not see themselves as like the rest of us—they see themselves as above the law, with good reason. For all intents and purposes, the people running soccer are.

Ronaldo is an iconic player—but what, we ask, does he represent if not the corruption of football’s greatest talents by its most sinister institutions?

Corruption is so normalized in sports institutions it is hard to imagine what sports would be were this not true. What is the NCAA without the big, self-serving lie of amateurism? What is the NFL without its history of minimizing and disavowing player suffering? What do we do with the ubiquity of sexual assault in college football culture? With domestic violence in men’s professional sports culture? What do we do with MSU, USA Gymnastics, and the IOC—organizations which dismissed athletes complaints and nurtured athlete abuse? With the former Ohio State athletes who are demanding accountability from their own community?

What happened to Kathryn Mayorga matters. For us to really appreciate how it matters, we need to understand that sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum.

The outrage expressed at a woman daring to press charges against Cristiano Ronaldo for sexual assault is part of the same indignity felt by Brett Kavanaugh. For the very few men who benefit from these corporate pyramid schemes, it is unthinkable that the way they treat women should be indicative of anything important about them. More men and women than we wish are also invested in this fantasy—they have sunk their sense of fairness and justice into institutions that require them to keep their own mouths shut, to not do the math, to not see what is right in front of them. White supremacist, patriarchal formations are by definition corrupt.

Let us remember, this system is bad for all of us. To date, in the UK, for example, over 800 boys and men have come forward as victims of sexual abuse at the hands of men working within clubs there. In its review of institutional failings the FA did not find evidence of a pedophile ring or deliberate cover-up. That people running football clubs did not see anything to cover-up is hardly reassuring. If anything, it is a reminder that in these institutions sexually abusive behavior is a defining aspect of their professional culture.

For years, a good number of us have pointed out and detailed FIFA and the IOC’s abusive relationship to women—as athletes, fans, coaches, referees, consumers and as members of sporting communities. Women soccer players have reported ongoing harassment and homophobic abuse by their coaches and administration. Athletes in a wide range of sports are