Where is the #MeToo movement in football?

Cristiano Ronaldo denies a rape allegation against him. What is certain is that his accuser is in for a rough ride.

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At last, the tidal wave that is #MeToo is threatening football's defences. Portugal and Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo has been accused of raping Kathryn Mayorga in Las Vegas nine years ago. The details of the allegations, including a reported pay-off to Mayorga from Ronaldo, were revealed by Mayorga through German news weekly Der Spiegel, and immediately rejected by Ronaldo’s lawyers. The player also took to Instagram (the footballer equivalent of the News at Ten) to reject the allegations.

At first glance there’s no reason to imagine this should threaten the foundations of football. Other sexual harassment and sexism scandals have not. England and Chelsea Women player Eni Aluko made allegations of racism towards coach Mark Sampson and was discredited by the FA and in the media before an investigation by the barrister Katharine Newton ruled she had told the truth. Sampson was later dismissed after an unrelated investigation by the FA, but football's power structures survived intact. Sian Massey’s career as a referee’s assistant was threatened after two TV presenters were recorded questioning her knowledge of the offside rule. Football broadcasting continued unabated. Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Eva Carneiro at Chelsea finished her career in English football. Football pressed on regardless.

A significant contributory factor is the patriarchal structure within which professional sport operates. For most of history, women have been excluded from participation, in some cases from even entering the building, and the appetite for reflection is limited. Two years ago, Muirfield forfeited the right to host the Open Golf Championship because its members voted to uphold the ban on women joining the club. 

As we are learning, though, it isn’t just women who suffer in a culture of hypermasculinity and unchecked power. In February this year, Barry Bennell was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment for hundreds of sexual offences against junior footballers in his care. A culture of systemic abuse at certain football clubs was revealed when more and more players came forward, describing horrific acts committed against them and a dressing room culture whose answer to every problem involved a variation of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mantra.

In the wake of the case, other footballers opened up about the culture of dressing rooms, the most notable being David Beckham’s admission that he was forced to masturbate over a photo of Clayton Blackmore in front of his teammates as part of an “initiation”. In football, just like in frat houses and British public schools, sexual humiliation is rife.

We can’t pretend we’re surprised when a significant proportion of young men brought up in that environment will gravitate towards it, and worse, consider it normal, even natural, behaviour. And while there are women who enjoy uncomplicated sex with well-dressed hardbodies who drive fast cars and buy 15-litre gold bottles of Armand De Brignac for £25k in Marbella because they can, this does not mean that they cannot be victims of sexual assault too. What it does mean is that if they find themselves forced into group sex they didn’t expressly consent to, and videos of it are leaked online, rather than public sympathy, they can expect to be referred to as a slag.

And they might even end up in court.

In 2011, a woman came forward to report she had been raped by Sheffield United striker Ched Evans in a Denbighshire Premier Inn. Evans was convicted and served two and a half years in prison before fresh evidence was submitted and a new trial ordered. Evans was found not guilty and is currently playing on loan for Fleetwood Town.

The case points to why women are not inclined to come forward with allegations. The woman involved (who, it should be remembered, is also entitled to the presumption of innocence, despite the conviction being overturned) was repeatedly doxxed on Twitter by “fans” of the player and reportedly forced to move house five times after receiving threats. Her behaviour on the night in question was analysed using CCTV footage, her sexual history (including a witness who had slept with her two days prior to the incident) discussed in court and considered relevant to the verdict.

The #MeToo movement began when brave individuals stepped up and spoke out. It gained momentum because others, empowered and assured of a degree of protection, stepped into the light themselves. The sacrifices made by those individuals varies but one thing is clear. Few suffered the fate of the accuser in the Ched Evans case. The ecosystem of male dominated sports is unique in that vociferous, partisan, ultimately misguided fans are inclined to protect their club by any means necessary.

Kathryn Mayorga deserves to have her claims investigated properly - and to be treated with respect while that happens. Let's hope football will treat her better than previous women in similar situations.