Sports Media Is Finally Covering One of the Biggest Stories of the Year. Why Did It Take So Long?

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Sports Media Is Finally Covering One of the Biggest Stories of the Year. Why Did It Take So Long?

Shireen Ahmed & Brenda Elsey

Sports media outlets that previously dismissed the sexual assault allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo are now scurrying to report on them.

Global sports media has been a pillar of support for the reputations of star athletes. While the dietary habits, socializing, fashion choices, and a legion of minutiae seem to enthrall outlets’ consumers, charges of sexual assault often garner little attention—and the coverage of the allegations against soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has, until very recently, been no exception.

In the last week, there have been a flood of new stories regarding the allegations. It would seem that the story is becoming too big to ignore. Urging from members of the #MeToo movement, among others, placed new pressure on media outlets to cover these stories and challenged the way they do so. Sports media outlets that previously dismissed the Ronaldo case are now scurrying to report on it. But unless they treat future allegations against athletes seriously, it will be clear they have not learned the lesson from their years-long mistake.

The first accusations against Ronaldo were made in London in 2005 after his first few seasons with Manchester United. He was arrested, but the woman involved decided not to press charges. In 2009, another woman, Kathryn Mayorga, went to the police with a harrowing story of being raped by a powerful man in a Las Vegas hotel. Mayorga agreed to drop criminal charges against Ronaldo after they settled on a $375,000 payment. The story remained outside the public eye until 2017, when the German publication Der Spiegel gained access to documents related to the case.

Even after Der Spiegel reported the charges against Ronaldo, sports media willfully ignored it, and no other major outlet pursued the story. In the very week that the reports surfaced, in fact, the Guardian’s Sid Lowe wrote an in-depth piece, “Ronaldo has done so much for Real Madrid – so why do some fans whistle him?” Lowe’s worry over whistling, which is the equivalent of booing in Spain, painted a portrait of Ronaldo as a maligned hero. The rape charges weren’t noted as even a possibility for why fans might be down on him. The Spanish media followed suit; when the case was mentioned, it was generally as a small afterthought in coverage of his Champions’ League performance and speculation about his future with Real Madrid. That type of bait-and-switch is common: Here’s a bit of salacious personal drama mixed with what you really want to know about his performance.

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When the U.S. media did cover the details of the case, it largely portrayed the accusations as a hurdle for Ronaldo to overcome, or it presented them as a nuisance. Bleacher Report, for example, published an article about charges of tax fraud against Ronaldo that briefly mentioned the assault allegations as a way of portraying the player as beleaguered. ESPN published a ridiculous piece, appropriately slammed by our Burn It All Down co-host Jessica Luther, that was littered with glowing praise for the star from his Portuguese football federation supporters including the head coach and federation president.

It isn’t only major outlets that were unwilling or uninterested in reporting on the case more deeply. Independent magazines that claim to have an alternative view on sports also backed off the story. Sure, there were smatterings of discussions in some outlets, including podcasts or opinion pieces. But it was not enough. We pitched a story about Ronaldo last year and the only outlet to take our piece was Rewire.News. The fact is that almost 90 percent of sports media leaders—the people who draw the editorial lines—are white men. For some, the priority to destroy toxic patriarchy may be quite low.

Cristiano Ronaldo’s predictable rebuttal to the few instances of media coverage was to call the allegations “fake news.” Ronaldo’s manipulative use of the terminology of Trump supporters to discredit the media reports leaves little doubt as to how he understands public opinion. His lawyers threatened Der Spiegel, as they have again this past week, with a number of lawsuits—none of which they have carried out. The way in which his denials have been presented in media coverage are equally troubling. He sent out some tweets and addressed the allegations on his Instagram account to the delight of his huge following; media outlets reported quickly on this as if it were a meaningful event. Instead of helping society unlearn the myths about false accusations, these outlets have just regurgitated the accused rapist’s denials.

Rather than improving media coverage by using free media toolkits carefully crafted by knowledgeable advocates for victims, or taking advice from professionals at places like the Women’s Media Center, sports editors have continued to rely on lazy journalistic tropes. This compounds an already serious problem where readers begin to question the victim instead of probing into the actions of the accused—making media complicit in society’s rape apologism.

Indeed, readers and outlets alike seem to have a very poor understanding of anything related to consent. This is unfortunate because in the state of Nevada, where the alleged rape was committed, lack of consent is central to the question of the crime. It would be professionally appropriate for media outlets to understand this instead of producing irrelevant garbage. Sky News, for instance, published a piece (since removed) about Mayorga dancing with Ronaldo at a nightclub on the night of the alleged attack. Dancing with a man does not translate into permitting him to rape you—yet Sky News’ choice to treat it as newsworthy implies as much. This perpetuates a way of thinking that is legally incorrect and morally reprehensible.

In interviews, Mayorga has said she always wondered if she was Ronaldo’s only victim. Recall the role of the Indianapolis Star in the trial of Larry Nassar. For decades, some of those victims wondered the exact same thing. An independent paper pursued their story, and the journalists, including Marisa Kwiatkowski, pushed against the establishment and a major university to accurately report it. As a result of Kwiatkowski and her colleagues’ incredible work—and the courage of Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to come forward—more than 260 survivors of violence came forward and Nassar was ultimately sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. The persistence and determination of journalists helped push this story to the front lines where it could no longer be ignored. What might have happened had journalists regarded the Ronaldo accusations as credible from the beginning? Would we have seen a shift in reader perception to recognize the possibility that Ronaldo had exhibited problematic and violent behavior? Would it have helped change a narrative that desperately needs changing?

Almost certainly.

Meanwhile, since her story came out, Mayorga has effectively disappeared, apparently preparing for the battle we all know she will face. She explained to Der Spiegel that the experience of seeing Ronaldo for years presented as a hero, a standup father, and a role model was excruciating. When she traveled, she says, she saw so many little children wearing his jersey. As we know, those experiences can re-traumatize victims.

We live in societies where the most vulnerable and marginalized are afraid to speak up because of ignorance, repercussions, and backlash. These survivors are assaulted and then must face assaults on their character, their choices, their history—all of which is irrelevant to the crimes committed against them. In global soccer, coaches, club directors, and rabid fans will break any moral compass to defend the reputation of men who hardly need it, and Cristiano Ronaldo is an example, par excellence. We cannot allow this to continue. Responsible journalism can lead to change, and can help forge a path of accountability and truth. We need more, and until then, we need to demand better.