The question rose when Boris Becker, beloved tennis star for nearly two decades before he retired, was accused by his ex-wife Barbara of racism and cheating, and it became clear he had fathered children with other women when he was still married.
It rose again when Tiger Woods, until then a poster boy for good behaviour and the undisputed king of the golfing green, was caught in a sex scandal. Eventually, he became a poster boy for “hypersexuality disorder”—addiction to sex.
And now, fresh from breaking a record for the most goals scored by a player in international football and all set to sport the No. 7 jersey for Manchester United for the first time in twelve years, Cristiano Ronaldo—the prodigal who has finally returned to Old Trafford—is now the subject of the question.
Must sportsmen be role models in their personal lives? Or can we forgive rapists and renegades, cheats and charlatans, just as long as they continue to do well in their sport?
Having spent five mandatory days in quarantine after his 19.8-million-pound transfer from Juventus, Cristiano Ronaldo went to his old stadium to meet his former teammate and current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his new teammates earlier in the week, an event covered copiously in the media.
Sky Sports News got into some trouble for hiding replies that referred to allegations of rape against Ronaldo on Twitter.
Ronaldo has an enviable career record. Even before he left Manchester for a then-record 80-million-pound to Real Madrid, he had won every major tournament his team participated in, scoring 118 goals in 292 appearances while he was at it; he would go on to repeat this achievement with Real Madrid, winning four Champions League titles on his way. He transferred to Juventus for 99-million-pounds in 2018, and returns to Old Trafford with five Ballon d’Ors under his belt.
Except he also returns with five separate rape allegations against him, the most infamous being that of Kathryn Mayorga. Mayorga, who met Ronaldo and was photographed partying with him when she was working as a hostess at the Rain nightclub in Las Vegas in 2009, burst out with allegations of rape in 2018.
She had told the German tabloid Der Spiegel her story anonymously the previous year; the report was promptly dismissed by Ronaldo and his lawyers. She broke the anonymity the next year, and had the police reopen the case.
From the reports, it appears Mayorga filed a rape complaint with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department on June 13, 2009, the day after she—by both her and Ronaldo’s accounts—went back to the Palms Palace Hotel for a hot-tub party with the footballer. She declined to name the place and the player, which the police say hindered a complete investigation. However, a medical examination found injuries consistent with rape.
Documents accessed by Der Spiegel show that Mayorga and Ronaldo reached an out-of-court settlement, in the course of the hearing for which Ronaldo admitted that she had “said ‘no’ and ‘stop’ several times” and that he had apologised to her after what he claimed was “consensual intercourse” and what Mayorga termed “rape”.
When the reports came out in 2018, Ronaldo’s lawyers first said the documents had been “completely fabricated” and then “altered” and then “stolen”.
It is now known that the two parties arrived at an out-of-court settlement of $375,000 and the signing of a non-disclosure agreement from Mayorga. She is now suing Ronaldo for damages to the tune of 56.5 million pounds, stating that she was not mentally fit at the time and therefore the terms needed to be revisited. Ronaldo’s lawyers have called the case an attempt “to destroy a reputation built thanks to hard work, athletic ability and behavioural correction.”
It wasn’t to be the first, or last, time Ronaldo was accused of rape. Back in 2005, he had been arrested over the alleged rape of two women at a suite in London’s Sanderson Hotel. The case was dismissed over “insufficient evidence”, by which time one of the two women had withdrawn her complaint.
After Kathryn Mayorga spoke out, her lawyers saying she had been “inspired” by the #MeToo movement, three other women came forward with allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking to The Daily Mail, one woman said he had raped her after a party, another said he had “hurt” her, and a third said she had signed a non-disclosure agreement after an incident.
At the time, Ronaldo issued a statement reading: “I firmly deny the accusations being issued against me. Rape is an abominable crime that goes against everything that I am and believe in. Keen as I may be to clear my name, I refuse to feed the media spectacle created by people seeking to promote themselves at my expense.”
Several of his sponsors said they were “concerned”, but none withdrew. Las Vegas prosecutors concluded that the allegations could not be “proven beyond reasonable doubt”.
But with Ronaldo’s supporters being called “rape apologists”, we must answer two critical questions. First, when the allegations against him have not been proven, should one condemn the player? Second, while it may not be established whether or not he is rapist, it is clear that he is a veteran of one-night stands—does this make him less of a role model? More importantly, should sportsmen be role models?
Today’s sports personalities can hardly be considered role models for their on-field behaviour, let alone off-field. Cricket, which was once called “the gentlemen’s game”, is infamous for sledging. Football sees its fair share of ugly fights on the field, and has become synonymous with hooliganism from spectators. Serena Williams, often touted to be the GOAT of women’s tennis, has sworn at chair umpires and broken rackets on court. We haven’t seen a Stefan Edberg since, well, Stefan Edberg.
Perhaps we must revisit the issue of what action teams and sponsors must take if the allegations against Ronaldo are ever proven.
But it is clear for now that a man who scores goals and sells merchandise will be a hero to all those who benefit from the scoring and selling.
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com