The email to Unusual Efforts co-founder and editrix-in-chief Kirsten Schlewitz was surprising in its message and its language. Unlike most of our unsolicited DMs, this one didn’t attempt to convince Kirsten that, though Unusual Efforts is a site for non-men to share what they’ve created, this particular man wanted, needed, and deserved to pitch his article on how Messi is the GOAT, or Messi is the most overrated player on the planet. No, this email started simply, with gratitude:
First, thank you for everything you do with Unusual Efforts. I saw from one of your tweets that it was ok to email you; I hope this finds you well.
Followed by a request that drilled down to the heart of what we do:
I’ve been closely following the development of the Cristiano Ronaldo rape case. I felt like you might be someone who could boost the signal a bit, since you have a platform.
And then the piece that every #Effortista, every woman, every person of color, every non-straight and not-cis individual, every non-male on social media feels in our bones:
I don’t have much social media presence (I get a bit anxious and paranoid about doxxing), but I guess I wanted to share this with someone beyond my friends, someone who has more of a voice. As a woman I’m deeply concerned with how high-profile rape cases play out, and I also happen to be a soccer/football fan.
Those of us who have written or posted about Cristiano Ronaldo online are accustomed to bracing ourselves for a flood of negative responses—even when we’re just calling out how often his photo is used for no discernible reason. At best, these are innocent-until-proven-guilty entreaties; at worst, they come in the form of vitriolic abuse, sexually implicit threats, and the kind of language that barely skirts Twitter’s questionable code of ethics.
Language matters. It matters on the fútbol pitch, where lore has it that Edinson Cavani so respected the position of team captain that, although Uruguay team captain Diego Lugano was just seven years older, Cavani always referred to him using the formal usted, conferring a linguistic level of respect and hierarchy with one simple word.
Language matters psychosocially and politically, as Unusual Efforts has explored in various ways, from the debate that continues to swirl around the p*to chant to the qualifier “-for a girl” that often gets tacked on when describing a female player’s proficiency. It may seem trivial, nitpicking even, to parse the wording used by public officials and personalities. After all, how many of us have been caught in an it’s-on-the-tip-of-the-tongue, can’t-find-the-right-word moment (fun fact; that’s called lethologica, and it’s a real thing), only to give up and reach for the next best, not-quite-right word? Linguistic errors happen. Freudian slips . . . slip. But meaning and intent go hand in hand, and often, it’s those ostensibly harmless word choices that matter the most.
After Norway and Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg took the stage to receive her Ballon d’Or and French DJ Martin Solveig celebrated her fútbol prowess and achievements by asking her to twerk, Solveig issued what he and his publicists called an apology. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde immediately picked up on the problematic wording of his mea culpa. Solveig:
apologized “to anyone who may have been offended,” which has become the boilerplate non-apology for those caught in all manner of bad behavior. Solveig went on to say: “People who have followed me for 20 years know how respectful I am especially with women.”
Hyde pounced on Solveig’s use of the word “especially” in his barely apologetic apology, saying, “That ‘especially’ is a bit of a tell. Why would you be any more respectful with women than with men, unless you thought there was something patronisably different about them?” An entire story told in a single adverb, and not a particularly good one.
As Shireen Ahmed wrote more than two years ago when confronting the media’s portrayal of sexual abuse in sport, the “misuse of language is a huge problem.” The rape accusation against Neymar never went to trial, yet produced a number of cringe-worthy responses, such as a fútbol scout claiming it wasn’t rape because “Brazilians like rough sex,”1 and Neymar’s national teammate Arthur’s assertion that the alleged victim lied about the rape so she could get more Instagram followers. In the wake of these and renewed claims of abuse and assault against Cristiano Ronaldo, journalists and commentators must grapple with their inherent biases, objectivity, and yes, the language they use to report on the news.
The language of trauma is fraught with possessive pronouns, grammar forever linking a victim of abuse to “their abuser.” In coming forward, a survivor is not only forced to find the precisely correct words with which to retell their history of abuse and pain (their recountings are often, according to experts, fragmented and nonlinear, making it difficult to locate such words), but they are also forever linked by those words to the perpetrator of the abuse: “My rapist.” “My abuser.” “My assailant.” Mine, and impossible to return. In sexual assault trials, cases are reduced to the power of words: those that he said, versus those that she said. Whose words carry more weight? Whose story matters more?
One of the best explanations I’ve found about the complicated, difficult language of describing sexual assault is by journalist Constance Grady, who writes about the need to find the language to convey the power imbalance and violence of abuse without desensitizing, traumatizing, or titillating her audience. A pop culture writer who, by virtue of the nature of her subject in recent years, finds herself grasping for the right words to write about sexual violence, Grady calls out the inadequacy of the existing vocabulary with which to do so. What language we do have at our disposal is too often lacking, “That inadequacy is not a harmless coincidence. Language reflects culture, and our language reflects a culture that does not want to make it easy to talk about sexual violence.”
Language is powerful. It can give power back to a victim who has been silenced, or it can retraumatize. Sometimes, it can do both.
What happened, or didn’t, what Ronaldo did, or didn’t, do, to Kathryn Mayorga and to two other women who have come forward with similar allegations, has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate across internet forums, throughout social media networks, and on the pages of newspapers around the world. Predictably, the women who accused Ronaldo of rape or assault have been slut-shamed and threatened, derided and vilified. Writers and activists, or really anyone who wades into the fray on social media, reminding us these alleged victims exist, expressing sympathy and empathy for them, or urging companies to drop their sponsorships of Ronaldo while the allegations are investigated (Ronaldo is currently the highest-paid athlete in the world, with numerous endorsements; his lifetime sponsorship with Nike alone is worth one billion pounds) continues to be attacked by a veritable army of Ronaldo-sympathizers, who argue that the best player in the world “wouldn’t have to rape anyone,” or that the women put themselves through the agony of accusing a global star to receive an eventual payout.2
Kathryn Mayorga chose to tell the story of her rape at the hands of superstar athlete Cristiano Ronaldo after a long period of silence. Out of a combination of fear, trauma, and in an attempt to move on from the attack, Mayorga signed a non-disclosure agreement with Ronaldo and his team of lawyers, settling for a payout and anonymity. So much did the silence matter to Ronaldo and his team that in the plea agreement, Mayorga was instructed not to mention Ronaldo by name, not even to her family or her therapist. So much did language matter to Mayorga that she insisted she be allowed to write a letter to Ronaldo, detailing her anguish over the attack, and her fervent hope that it would never happen to another woman. As part of the plea agreement, this letter was required to be read out loud for Ronaldo to hear.
In a follow up to their meticulously investigated report, Der Spiegel points out that Mayorga “chooses her words carefully” when revisiting the attack and her subsequent diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder. In his own written testimony to the Las Vegas police, Ronaldo was less succinct, admitting that Mayorga “said no and stop several times . . . she kept saying ‘no, don’t do it’. . . . She complained that I forced her.” With what basically amounts to a confession of rape on the record, has this changed the reporting around the world’s most successful athlete? In a word, no.
Barely a week goes by without ESPN using the athlete to stoke Twitter engagement, plopping a photo of him on the list of teams qualifying for Euros, though Portugal is one of 24 qualifying nations, and then following that up with five Ronaldo–themed tweets in rapid succession. Not to be outdone, UEFA retweeted their own tweet touting Ronaldo’s hat trick as though no previous player or player to come had ever or would ever score three goals in a match. None of these tweets were linked to accompanying articles, and no other national team or player garnered nearly as many tweets; Ronaldo for Ronaldo’s sake is generally the theme.
And it’s not just ESPN using the player for gratuitous engagement. In a tweet that was equal parts maligned and lauded, Juventus showed a remarkable lack of self-awareness by posting “@Cristiano Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus.” Eni Aluko wrote about the striker’s “legendary commitment” and the “great entertainment” of his goal celebration where he imitated Diego Simeone and grabbed his crotch. Which was, to say the least, perhaps not the most tactful of displays by a man under investigation for using the aforementioned crotch in at least two sexual assaults.
Even more recently, Sports Illustrated posted a mind-bendingly convoluted tweet that seemed to reference the sexual assault and battery accusations lodged against Neymar while using the controversy to glorify his return to the pitch. It is absolutely true that Neymar had come back from injury to score a goal for his club. It is also true that he stands accused of beating and raping a women who refused to have sex without a condom, and then posting nude photos of her on social media, leading to death threats and vile abuse sent her way.
So what’s the solution? Should reporters, journalists, pundits, and fans ignore the player at the center of the controversy and goal-circus, edit out his name and write only about his teammates? While appealing to some, this he-who-shall-not-be-named approach is neither practical nor meaningful. We cannot hope to change what we don’t name. As we’ve seen time and again, language has power. The announcement that Juventus were set to play Atlético Madrid in Stockholm in this summer’s ICC Cup led a slew of articles about Ronaldo’s fitness and possible participation—and something new. Friends, the Swedish anti-bullying organization after which the Stockholm stadium is named, spoke out against the famous player, going so far as to approach the ICC to make their stance known. Since Friends came forward stating, “It is really important to make our feelings clear and make a stand” on the seriousness of the allegations against Ronaldo, other publications have mentioned the assault claims in their reporting on Ronaldo’s travel plans and match statistics. For a few months, while the case was being transferred, major sports outlets even published articles using the terms “rape” and “sexual assault” in relation to the star, a far cry from the footnote the allegations merited in previous reports of Ronaldo’s oft mentioned tax skirmishes, and a complete turnaround from Sid Lowe’s obsequious piece calling fútbol fans who dared to “upset” Ronaldo by whistling or booing him dicks.
Kathryn Mayorga’s case against Ronaldo has been taken up in federal court, as her lawyers attempt to account for Ronaldo’s country-hopping, international addresses, and vast holdings. As the legal proceedings grind ever-so-slowly, it is up to journalists, to the media, to casual fans to decide how to proceed. As long as teams are willing to hire him, Ronaldo—and Neymar, and, unfortunately, other players accused of gender-based violence and sexual assault—will be newsworthy.
Eleven years and countless articles after the first rape accusations against Ronaldo came to light, the sports world is only beginning to grapple with the language we use to talk about our idols (consider our genuine surprise when major outlets actually used the word “rape”). Where once the language we had at our disposal was inadequate, now it is our refusal to confront hard truths that is disheartening (consider our lack of surprise when such articles discussing “rape” quickly faded away). When it comes to discussing these players, the answer isn’t an either/or; to talk about the goals or to talk about the accusations. But what it’s not is burying one hard-hitting article about sexual assault accusations amidst fawning social media posts and laudatory pieces about GOATs. And no, it’s not a full media blackout; these players will continue to be newsworthy on the pitch and, as journalists, we cover that news. But we can, and should, include the entire player making headlines. The next time Ronaldo scores a game-winner, the headline—or footnote, or anywhere in the body of the article—should include the numerous, ongoing sexual assault accusations against him.
Eleven years since Ronaldo was first accused of rape. Three years since Der Spiegel first wrote about the Mayorga allegations. Fourteen months since the German paper published its full exposé, and we first tackled the language used to discuss the superstar’s behavior. Yet, save for a few tweets we create or amplify, sexual assault perpetrated by fútbol players is rarely discussed—and no one’s providing the facts and figures on how few women, on the whole, step up to file charges against their assailant.
So yes, it is past time to speak up, to use our words and language to shine a spotlight on corrosive behavior. When we’re asked, “I felt like you might be someone who could boost the signal a bit,” we say, “Yes.”
1 Characterizing Brazilians as a sexual monolith is offensive and ridiculous. However, it is equally important to note that rough sex does not imply lack of consent. As Susan Wright explains, BDSM is highly consensual and “one way to tell whether something is consensual or abusive is to ask: can you stop what’s happening? As soon as someone wants to end the activity, it must stop, otherwise it’s assault.”
2 (Both of these claims are baseless; rape is, as experts have proven time and time again, not about sex but about dominance and power. While scholars put false rape claims at between 2–4% of all rape accusations, a person alleging sexual assault not only has to put words to the traumatizing, often shameful, account, but also must undergo being photographed for injuries and having swabs and samples taken orally, vaginally, and anally. None of this is an ordeal undertaken frivolously.)