Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the most famous athlete in the world. He is a superstar soccer player for both Juventus and the Portugal national team. He’s the face of EA Sports’ FIFA 19 (as he was of FIFA 18), he has a reported $1 billion lifetime deal with Nike, and he’s the third highest-paid athlete in the world.
He’s also the man Kathryn Mayorga says brutally raped her nearly a decade ago.
In June 2009, she called 911 and told the dispatcher that an unnamed athlete, whom she described as a “public figure,” had raped her. The police arrived at her parents’ Las Vegas home. She went to the hospital and underwent a rape kit examination but did not say who exactly had hurt her or where it had happened.
Early the next year, she settled with Ronaldo out of court and he paid her $375,000 with the stipulation that she never talk about the case again.
But in this Me Too moment, Mayorga came forward with a story in German magazine Der Spiegel in September of this year.
Whether a person is a hard worker, a good friend or a nice neighbor has no bearing on what he is capable of alone in a hotel bathroom with a woman who says, 'No. Don’t do it.'
Part of Der Spiegel’s reporting includes a questionnaire Ronaldo supposedly filled out about the night in question in which he recalled, “She said that she didn’t want to, but she made herself available,” and “But she kept saying ‘No.’ ‘Don’t do it.’ ‘I’m not like the others.’ I apologized afterwards.”
This most recent story is actually the second time that Ronaldo has been accused of assaulting a woman in a hotel room. The first time was in London in 2005. He was arrested and questioned but there were no criminal charges.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo denies all of these allegations and has a team of people working to develop a defense strategy. The Las Vegas Police Department has reopened its criminal investigation. Nike says it is “deeply disturbed” by the report and will “monitor the situation,” and EA has “de-emphasized” him on their website.
But despite scrutiny from his sponsors, Ronaldo has gotten what I call The Nice Guy treatment. Portugal’s head coach said he knew nothing about the case but “I know Cristiano well and I fully believe he would not commit a crime like that.” The federation president added, “I have known Ronaldo for many years and I am a witness of his good character.”
The prime minister of Portugal also got in on the praise, calling Ronaldo “an extraordinary professional, an extraordinary sportsman, an extraordinary footballer,” adding, “certainly what we all wish for is that nothing can ever stain that record of Ronaldo.” His professional club, Juventus, tweeted compliments about his “great professionalism and dedication.” They continued, “The events allegedly dating back to almost 10 years ago do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion.”
They don’t seem to care what Mayorga reported or what they might know about the situation. All that matters is what they know of him and, to them, he his nice, professional, dedicated and even sportsmanlike.
If we ― as fans, media, society ―are ever going to begin to fix the problems of gendered violence, we must kill the Nice Guy narrative.
As a society, we are primed to empathize with men, especially powerful men, who have been reported for harmful and even criminal behavior — what philosopher Kate Manne cleverly coined “himpathy.” We must justify why the report must not be true in order for this worldview to continue making sense and for our empathy to be correctly placed, and so we land on tropes about lying women or gold diggers, while also propping up the goodness of the man accused.
Yet, whether a person is a hard worker, exceptional in their craft, a good friend or a nice neighbor has no bearing on what he is capable of alone in a hotel bathroom with a woman who says, “No. Don’t do it.” As sports writer Shireen Ahmed recently wrote for TIME, “how Ronaldo performs on the pitch is not correlated to the fact that he may have brutally violated a woman.”
So-called “nice” men are capable of harm, too. It’s really that simple.
When it comes to sports, there can be an added intensity to this, in large part because in this day and age (for a long while now) you can consume sports, and especially the most famous and/or your favorite players around the clock. We watch them during post-game interviews or longform features that purport to take us into their everyday lives. We read glowing profiles, and purchase jerseys and posters. We play as them in video games.
We feel like we get to know these men because we see them interacting with teammates and opponents and their families, and we make judgments about their character based on their in-game behavior.
And even if someone is mean or even abusive during a match, we easily excuse it away in sports terms: he’s only like that because he is intense while playing, the game demands it, he takes winning very seriously, aggressive behavior is just a part of sport. That’s just how they are on the pitch, what the sport brings out in them.
And when players do well, it can act as a disappearing agent for discussions about off-field behavior. Der Spiegel first reported in 2017 that Ronaldo had settled a rape case out of court but didn’t name Mayorga. In their recent piece, they noted that four days after publishing, “Ronaldo scored three goals in a Champions League match against Bayern Munich and then three more against Atlético Madrid. The Mayorga story quickly faded into the background.”
An actual Nice Guy does not harm or assault another person.
Fans (and, let’s be honest, sports media) are deeply invested, certainly financially but also emotionally. That is a lot to give up. In Ronaldo’s case, it’s much easier to ignore what Mayorga says, push out of mind the documents Der Spiegel uncovered, and hold on with both hands to the belief that the Ronaldo you know on the pitch is the only version of him there is to know.
This is why The Nice Guy trope works so well. It’s easy, comfortable and maintains the status quo. But we need to recognize the work the Nice Guy is doing: the redirection, the obfuscation and the excusing away clear evidence.
If we ― as fans, media, society ―are ever going to begin to fix the problems that survivors of gendered violence keep revealing whenever they tell their stories, we must kill the Nice Guy narrative. We must question this characterization and why it is being used. We must also demand that “nice guy” defenses be set aside set aside in the face of hard evidence. And, perhaps most challengingly, we must rewrite what it means to be “nice.”
An actual Nice Guy does not harm or assault another person. If he does, he, at the least, owns up to it, apologizes and tries to make amends.
And finally, we must do the nice thing ourselves. We must believe women and hold space for their stories. Then we must be willing to hold even our favorite and best athletes accountable for all their actions, not only what they do on the pitch.
Jessica Luther is a freelance journalist, an author and a co-host of the feminist sports podcast “Burn It All Down.”