What Happens When the World’s Most Famous Athlete Is Accused of Rape?

Cristiano Ronaldo applauding to teammates on October 6. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

One of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in sports happened last weekend, involving one of the most famous athletes of all time, for one of the most famous teams, in the world’s most popular sport. The Portuguese soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo, long a star for Real Madrid and now the lead striker for Italian club Juventus, is facing a highly credible rape allegation, one that’s being investigated by the Las Vegas police department and is turning many of his sponsors against him. His whole life is under attack right now. But there he was, this weekend, out there, just … playing. He just played like nothing was going on. He actually scored a goal for his new team Juventus — which has supported him maybe a little too vociferously — and he celebrated like everything was fine and he didn’t have a worry in the world.

Everything is not fine, and he has plenty to be worried about. Las Vegas police have reopened their investigation of accusations made against Ronaldo by a woman named Kathryn Mayorga, who says Ronaldo, back in June 2009, violently raped her in a Las Vegas hotel room. She made her name public in an article last month in Der Spiegel magazine, and it is not a frivolous accusation she is making. There is a rape kit, collected at the hospital the day after the alleged rape. There is an interview with Ronaldo’s lawyers from later that year, which was leaked by hackers a few years ago, in which he admits “she said no and stop several times … I entered her from behind. It was rude. We didn’t change position. 5/7 minutes. She said that she didn’t want to, but she made herself available … But she kept saying ‘No.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ ‘I’m not like the others.’ I apologized afterwards.” (The interview was later revised in a sanitized second version, also leaked, and last night Ronaldo’s lawyers claimed the first version was altered by the hackers.) And there is a settlement: Ronaldo, sensing vulnerability, ended up paying Mayorga $375,000 to sign a non-disclosure agreement. But inspired by the #MeToo movement and under the pressure of being “outed” by paparazzi, she has decided to ignore the agreement and tell her story.

This story only broke last week, but, as you might expect, there have already been some dramatic ramifications for Ronaldo, outside of just the Las Vegas investigation. EA Sports, which has Ronaldo on the cover of the newest version of its wildly popular FIFA 19 video game, has removed him from all social-media promotions, and Nike, which is perhaps most responsible for making Ronaldo the highest-paid athlete on earth, says it’s “deeply concerned” about the allegations. Ronaldo skipped a tour with the Portuguese national team last week, but in his day job, he’s back at Juventus, playing through it. Which is all to say that the ramifications also haven’t been quite as dramatic as many might like. His primary reactions to the allegations have been adamant tweets denying them and a cryptic Instagram video in which he actually says, “Fake news.”

There have been athletes accused of sexual assault in the past — most notably Kobe Bryant, who we’ll get back to — but none with the global notoriety of Ronaldo … and none with the amount of evidence against him. And, more to the point: None that have happened at this particular moment in history, when the sports world is far less likely to sweep this under the rug than it might have in the past. This is the most famous athlete on the planet credibly accused of a heinous crime of sexual assault in a moment where corporate sponsors — if not, uh, American politicians — are falling over themselves to show us they believe women. 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. How, exactly, will this play out? At the moment it’s quite unclear, but five distinct scenarios seem most likely — each delivering a very different message about not just Ronaldo and this specific incident, but how sports culture is likely to judge this kind of allegation in the future.

First, Ronaldo goes to jail. This is a not inconceivable outcome. Vegas police say they want to talk to Ronaldo, and they should: There is a lot of evidence for a case like this. Despite Ronaldo’s claims, there are no financial reasons for Mayorga to go after him; she is, in fact, jeopardizing the money she has already been paid by Ronaldo by coming out publicly. There is the evidence collected by the hospital the day after the assault. There is the sworn testimony by Ronaldo himself that he heard Mayorga say “no” repeatedly, and that he did apologize to her afterward. There are paparazzi photos of Ronaldo talking to Mayorga the night of the alleged incident. There is the fact that he paid her the money in the first place. Rape cases have been brought on less: This is a lot more than “he said, she said.” If Vegas police really do pursue this all the way to the end, they have plenty to work with, not least of which is a victim eager to tell her story in detail. Obviously, Ronaldo’s top-flight career is essentially over if he goes to jail: He is 33 years old and already nearing retirement age for a player of his type. One can imagine some sort of Mike Tyson circus-like return — maybe even an MLS or China retirement tour? — but Ronaldo’s years of dominating the sport would be long gone.

A second possibility: Ronaldo avoids jail, or even a trial, but the stain of the accusations ruin his career anyway. This is the real test, isn’t it? The accusations against Ronaldo aren’t just credible, they’re violent and vivid and horrifying. They belie every image of himself he has ever put forward. If he were, say, a Hollywood actor, performer, or television journalist, it’s fair to presume his career would be instantly jettisoned: The allegations against him are more brutal than any of the awful things Louis C.K. and Matt Lauer were accused of. It is also possible that this allegation, as has happened in other cases, opens up new allegations from other women down the line. (This is in fact already happening.) Those men’s careers were (at least temporarily, and perhaps permanently) halted, and, again, their crimes, while reprehensible, did not approach the violence of what Ronaldo is accused of. If Nike and EA Sports (and Ronaldo’s countless other sponsors) find him too toxic in the wake of these revelations, others will follow. Currently Juventus is supporting Ronaldo — in the clumsiest possible fashion — but this could get ugly enough that they no longer would. This is the ultimate test of the sports world in the age of #MeToo: Would it reject a player who is clearly a rapist? Is there a point that he becomes unemployable? Or does this turn into an Aroldis Chapman situation … and we all decide to forget about it?  

This bring us to the third possibility: Ronaldo doesn’t face legal consequences, and we all feel queasy about him, but whaddya gonna do, not let him play? Ronaldo’s reputation has taken an obvious hit here, but if he doesn’t go to jail, he will — like other men accused of sexual assault who have avoided punishment — try to claim victory and move on with his life. Ronaldo is old enough now that he probably doesn’t have another World Cup left in him, or at least none where he wouldn’t be in a diminished capacity. It would require another Champions League finals appearance for Juventus (they made the final in 2017, where they lost to Ronaldo’s Real Madrid) for Ronaldo to be atop his sport again anytime soon. (Euro 2020 is another possibility.) In this scenario, Ronaldo becomes a sort of ghost figure, a diminished player who will always have this hanging over him, particularly in an age where he will constantly reminded of it, but is allowed to finish his career in relative peace. It becomes the fourth paragraph of his sports obituary, rather than his first. Considering precedent, this might be, alas, the most likely scenario. This is where we have typically landed in the past. But it could be worse.

Next: Ronaldo is a champion again, and we all pretend it didn’t happen. This is, of course, the Kobe Bryant scenario. Kobe Bryant was accused of a rape back in July 2003 as vicious and ghastly as Ronaldo’s, but the case was dropped when the victim refused to testify after an aggressive and bullying strategy by Kobe’s lawyers. As noted by Deadspin’s Albert Burneko last week, Bryant ended up suffering almost no ramifications from that case at all: He is still considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time and, more than that, a certain barometer of success and NBA manhood that’s still powerful and influential today. (Shit, man, Kobe has won an Oscar.) Kobe won championships, won scoring titles, and is generally considered a god on earth by Lakers fans, to the point that LeBron James — actually the greatest player of all time — came to their team and a large percentage of them are rejecting him because he’s not Kobe. Everyone knew Kobe was probably guilty, and definitely guilty of trying to force the victim into silence, but they all moved on because … it’s Kobe! This is maybe the ultimate test of the #MeToo moment. If Ronaldo has a dream scenario here, it’s Kobe’s: Just play through it, because deep down, everyone wants to still root for you. It is possible that we have progressed beyond this point, that this cultural moment makes a rehabilitation like Kobe’s impossible. It is also very possible that it we are stuck exactly where we were.

Lastly, Ronaldo is vindicated entirely. It is essentially impossible to imagine this happening. But you can count on Ronaldo, no matter what, acting as if it has. (He is, after all, used to playing a certain sort of anti-hero.) That is the strategy these days, basically for everything. It has worked for others. Ronaldo is trying, desperately, to make it work for him. He’s gonna play through it. It is up to the rest of us whether he gets away with it or not.

When the World’s Most Famous Athlete Is Accused of Rape