Euro 2016 has provided some exciting and unprecedented joy from heroes, new and old. From the boisterous and lovely Irish fans to the panache of French players, we’ve been delighted. The cult-favourite sweatpants of Gábor Király to the many missed penalty shots have left us intrigued and excited. England’s unexpected exit forced by a persevering Iceland left many elated. The blond, bearded descendants of Vikings in the icy North kept their dream of football glory ablaze longer than anyone anticipated. There is much happiness. There is beautiful football.
But we have seen ugly behaviour from Russian and English supporters. We watched dangerous flares thrown onto the pitch. These violent drunken outbursts, this recklessness of so-called supporters has been all over the media, highlighting a cancer in the sport. But there are some subjects that are perhaps taboo, or perhaps too uncomfortable, to be called out by football federations or football media.
Just before the tournament began, we got a whiff of the stench of a misogynist system that is afraid to tackle, and unwilling to address, the repugnancy of rape culture apologia in football.
Spain’s highly-rated goalkeeper, 25-year-old David De Gea, was implicated in a brutal sexual assault case. In the trial of notorious porn producer Ignacio Allende Fernández (aka Torbe), a sex worker alleged that, in 2012, De Gea paid for women to attend a gathering at which two other footballers raped them.
The allegations, at first, were unclear. Headlines included phrases such as:
De Gea held a press conference soon after. He told those assembled, “ignore the story. It’s a falsehood, a lie”.
Spain’s manager, Vicente del Bosque, then added his opinion, announcing he felt De Gea was innocent. An extremely dangerous precedent to set, considering De Gea has yet to be formally charged and vindicated. He added that the team would be giving the goalkeeper “support and affection”. If only survivors of sexualized violence were given “support and affection” from powerful federations.
English-speaking media primarily relied upon initial reports from El Diario, then focused attention on reactions and statements from the Spanish camp. It seemed as if football was more concerned with who del Bosque would select to start at goalkeeper: Spanish captain and former Euro and World Cup champion Iker Casillas, or Manchester United’s Most Valuable Player, De Gea.
The discussion wasn’t centered on the victims being forced to perform sex acts. There were no deeper conversations about how the women were promised money but received nothing but threats should they ever report the crimes. There was no addressing the issue of consent. And how that is absolutely required – even for footballers. And yes, even when the women are sex workers.
The language used by media was atrocious. When the news broke that he victims were sex workers, the wording drastically changed. The victim went from being a “woman” to a “prostitute” which propels a bias and is a vulgar attempt to shame the victim. Her occupation doesn’t justify her sexual assault. Later, in much of their reporting, an outlet used “private life“ to discuss the allegations, as opposed to “sexual assault case”.
This misuse of language is a huge problem. Phrases like “forced sex” are not OK to use. “Private life” does not cover it. Not when a rape has occurred.
But I suppose this is unsurprising considering English-language media, of which 90% is white, cisgendered male, does not often write about sexual assault in sport with nuance – or attention.
I waited for articles from major outlets to report on more than the initial stories. There were none. But when I researched Spanish media I found a strong piece addressing the predominance of rape culture and misogyny in football, including chants of rape apologia.
We know that rape culture is common in sport. Star athletes often get a pass. Even a finding of “not guilty ” is a judgment that simply means the charges were not proven in a court of law. Let’s keep in mind that the justice system was not designed to protect or advocate for victims of sexualized violence. It feeds off the fear that many victims have when considering whether to report abuse.
Victims are maligned and slut-shamed in articles that defend accused rapists. When athletes are convicted or sentenced, their families stand by them and publicly blame the victim. Celebrities use their star status to unequivocally support the accused. Edurne García Almagro, De Gea’s partner of six years, posted a photo on her Instagram in support of him before the first match.
When I read that del Bosque selected De Gea to start, I was horrified. Truth be told, I didn’t quite expect the coach to be the most ardent supporter of justice in football. He is, after all, the same man who denied the existence of racism in Spanish football.
After the first match won by Spain, no further mention of De Gea and his alleged involvement in the rape of two women (of which he has not been cleared) came into play. Only mentions of his clean sheet boomed through match reports. One lone podcast, The Double Pivot with Michael Caley and Mike Goodman, talked about De Gea and the lack of conversation surrounding sexual violence in sports media. They addressed the importance of speaking about these issues. (Full disclosure: Caley and Goodman are colleagues and contacted me about this discussion before they taped their show.)
I was relieved that someone would be discussing this issue in a responsible manner. The Double Pivot, a relative newcomer to the podcast scene, has now set a precedent that is not only OK but necessary to talk about rape culture in football.
Media often glosses over – or completely ignores – vile histories, focusing on technical ability and sporting success. This combination – the vilification of victims and the erasure of past misdeeds – perpetuates a deplorable system in which male athletes are glorified.
It’s clear few sports writers have no idea how to write about sexual assault, and that must be addressed, but it’s even worse to ignore the issue altogether, erasing these cases from the public’s mind.
In a better world, De Gea would have been benched. Iker Casillas would have played. Casillas, the former Real Madrid keeper, has won a European-record 167 caps to De Gea’s nine. He has also never been accused of arranging a gathering at which two women were raped.
The alleged crimes are horrific. Had Spain acted differently, they would have sent a message that these cases should be taken seriously. If De Gea is ultimately vindicated then La Roja could argue that they stood on moral ground by not playing him. They could wave their moral superiority as currency. But by supporting a man accused of involvement in the rape of two women, they continue to uphold a similar sexist stance to the one that has frustrated Spanish female players and hindered development of the women’s game.
Spain’s football association, the Real Federación Española de Fútbol, has long festered in misogyny and unapologetic bigotry. It’s one thing to support your player, it’s another to sweep this under the rug, allowing the majority of the football world to avoid a discussion – which del Bosque was all too happy to do.
Spanish politician Pedro Sánchez publicly stated that he was unhappy with del Bosque’s selection of De Gea. “I do not feel comfortable watching De Gea as the goalkeeper of the Spanish national team after seeing his name splashed about and denounced by a minor,” Sánchez said. “I respect the presumption of innocence but we also have to take the side of the victim and in this case we are talking about a minor.”
Despite a sloppy match against Croatia, del Bosque defended his goalkeeper’s performance. After a humiliating defeat to Italy which knocked the reigning Euro champions out of the tournament, various outlets continued heralding De Gea as “heroic”. A fan page lauded him as a “classy professional”. A. Classy. Professional.
I was thrilled when Spain went out. I heaved a sigh of relief. I wondered if the football goddesses were smiling. I certainly was. It was difficult for me to root against a team that I have supported for many years. To wish the fail of Andrés Iniesta and La Roja is soul crushing, particularly as I love that style of play. But to support a team that upholds everything I work against is not possible. Not if I wish to keep my head up when I shoot, pass or even when I wake up in the morning. Words matter. Actions are important. And this conversation needs to be continued.
Shortly after Spain were tossed out of the same tournament they jubilantly won four years ago, del Bosque announced his resignation. He was quick to name Casillas for leaving a “bad taste” with the team staff. It’s unfortunate that del Bosque didn’t see the negativity in selecting De Gea above Casillas.
David De Gea is known as a quiet, unassuming sort. It is easy to write kind things about him. He is often sole shining star of Manchester United, saving that squad from further misery and loss. But this calm professional footballer is also accused of organizing the rape of two women. There is certainly nothing kind or unassuming about that.
Perhaps sports media and indeed sports teams might want to consider heroics of a different kind? Disabling the system of apologia surrounding sexualized violence against women is a good place to start. Benching a player, even an excellent one, to show solidarity with a victim would certainly be heroic.
I intended to write about this earlier. I pitched it to several different outlets. All of my contacts were men. All were very polite, but all declined. And this is part of the problem. These pieces are not what might garner the most clicks. The sexual assault angle is not a nice one.
But eradicating rape culture from sports media will be a difficult, ongoing process. It will take commitment from a multitude of outlets. It will take perseverance from clubs, teams, and sports associations. It will involve grueling conversations with allies. It will require hours spent actually listening to survivors of sexualized violence and domestic abuse. It cannot be nonchalant. It will not be lovely. It needs to happen.
Until then, I will cheer for truly heroic players, like Gigi Buffon. I will cheer on phenomenal teams who don’t subscribe to misogynistic practices.
I am a footballer, a sports writer and a devoted fan. But I refuse to support rape culture in sports. I don’t believe it is worth the price of football joy. The dignity of a human being and their right to safety was never meant to be measured against the beautiful game.
Allowing this to happen lessens this wondrous sport we love. More than that, it lessens our humanity.