At the end of September, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a long, detailed interview with a woman who says soccer giant Cristiano Ronaldo raped her in June 2009. A month later, Ronaldo surpassed Selena Gomez to become the most-followed person on Instagram.
Yes, Gomez is on a social media hiatus, which gave Ronaldo a boost, but something doesn’t add up here. Over the past year, we’ve seen actors, comedians, talk-show hosts, novelists, chefs, musicians and politicians lose their jobs—or at least their reputations—after allegations of sexual violence or harassment against them surfaced. It’s true, not everyone has been sanctioned. Not all women were believed. But even when women themselves wondered whether the behaviour in question was actually assault, there was some kind of reckoning.
Where was the reckoning with Ronaldo?
At least one fan has grappled with her complicated feelings about this situation. Mostly, though, the Juventus forward has continued to amass admirers. Certainly he hasn’t lost any. When he returned to Old Trafford at the end of October to play against his former club, Manchester United fans greeted him with “ardent worship” and serenaded him as he left the field. Even his opponents are still cheering for him.
And sadly, I’m not surprised. Conspicuous in their relative absence from the roster of men held to account over the past year are professional athletes, though I suspect that they are actually over-represented among powerful men who’ve been abusive. The culture of professional sports is one of the world’s most effective incubators of violence against women, and also one of the “best” at getting away with it. Even now, when #metoo is carrying the day in nearly every other arena.
In sports, all the problematic ideas about masculinity and power that breed domestic violence and sexual harassment and rape culture are (forgive me) on steroids. The argument that fighting is part of the game in NHL hockey is rooted in a myth about male “honour,” a so-called code that ostensibly deters dirty play, but essentially sanctions criminal behaviour. In baseball, supposedly a more genteel game, homophobia and sexism are go-to responses to unwelcome press comments or calls on the field, even from some of the game’s—and my own—most beloved characters.
For the best athletes, it seems, the rules are different. Players who are as good as Ronaldo have been good for a long time. They are noticed and tracked and groomed from a very young age. They are invested in; when they get in trouble, they are supported—by their bosses and their fans.
Let’s talk about Jameis Winston, who in 2012 was accused of raping a fellow student at Florida State University, where he was the school’s promising new freshman quarterback. The New York Times reported that the police investigating the allegations failed on several counts, including not following “obvious leads” which would have uncovered a relevant video. Winston was never charged—the prosecutor said he didn’t have enough evidence—and went on to win a national championship for FSU; he himself won the Heisman Trophy, the biggest individual prize in college football. In April 2015, he went first overall in the NFL draft and became the starting QB for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Two years ago, he allegedly groped an Uber driver. Last year, the NFL launched an investigation and in June, the league suspended him for three games. Still, after the news broke, “a surprisingly large number” of fans continued wearing his jersey, the Tampa Bay Times reported, though many of them said they were conflicted about it. That last part is almost more surprising to me.
Now let’s talk what it takes to believe that a woman was actually assaulted by an athlete.
In February 2014, a video surfaced online of Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, out of an Atlantic City casino elevator. She appeared to be unconscious and in fact, police did say they had a second video that showed Rice knocking Palmer out, but it wasn’t made public at the time. The Baltimore Ravens running back was charged with aggravated assault, and enrolled in an intervention program rather than stand trial. The NFL gave him a two-game suspension, and fans gave him a standing ovation during a training camp later that summer.
Then, in September, the second video emerged. The new footage from inside the elevator showed Rice punching Palmer in the head. That same day, the Ravens released Rice, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. And this time, fans (some 7,000 of them) lined up to return their jerseys.
Here’s what I want to know: Where is the video in which NFL commissioner Roger Goodell—or the prosecutors who excused Rice from standing trial, or any football fan anywhere who preferred to see Rice back on the field rather than send a message to boys and girls that beating women up is not allowed, full-stop—explaining why the first video wasn’t disturbing enough to fire Rice from the game immediately and forever? Why did we need to actually see a man drag an unconscious woman by her shoulders out of an elevator, drop her on the floor and then walk away in order to believe it was abuse? What exactly does it take to believe that women are abused by talented and valuable athletes?
Actually, no. I think the real question is this: Why don’t we care?
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