Our Sporting Heroes And The Question Of Accountability

Questioning Tribalism and the Cult of Ronaldo

It’s been over two months since Cristiano Ronaldo’s sensational move back to Manchester United. The August evening his move was announced saw Instagram and Twitter flooded with reposts of United’s social handles, celebrating the return of one of history’s greatest footballers to his spiritual home where he made a name for himself, and a league which was crying out for Man United to return to competing at its pinnacle. The Instagram post now sits on upwards of 13 million likes — the most-liked sports-related post on the platform.

The days which followed would see many, many posts (84 in the first week from the official United Twitter, as per the calculations of one Twitter user) remembering a young Ronaldo’s days at United, scoring wonder goals, turning defenders inside and out with stepovers, going from a gawky teenager with bad hair to one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, winning his first Ballon d’Or, achieving the pinnacle of individual success in the sport.

They also saw the bringing back to light of the accusations of rape which have followed Ronaldo since a report by German outlet Der Spiegel, sourced by footballing whistleblower Rui Pinto in what has since been coined Football Leaks. It revealed how Ronaldo was facing a lawsuit in the American state of Nevada for the alleged assault on Kathryn Mayorga, now a school teacher in Las Vegas, on a preseason trip for the United team in 2009. In 2010, Ronaldo’s lawyers paid Mayorga 375,000 USD to ensure her silence. They then argued that it was not a confession of guilt. Earlier this month, a federal magistrate dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds of a lack of admissible evidence being provided by Mayorga’s lawyers. For the time being, Cristiano Ronaldo is an innocent man — but this wouldn’t be the first time a powerful, guilty man walks free.

In his second debut against Newcastle United (now owned by the Saudi state, a moral quandary in and of itself), Ronaldo would suit up in the United red and score 2 in a day of euphoric celebrations. The plane which flew overhead in the second minute of the match with the message “Believe Kathryn Mayorga” would go unnoticed amidst the din of the Old Trafford crowd, for whom the hero had returned home.

Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev is coming off his best, most consistent year on the men’s tennis tour. He returned to the top 5 after two years of up-and-down performances, reaching two semifinals and a quarter in the major events, crowning his year with Olympic gold in Tokyo and a second title at the prestigious World Tour Finals event in Turin, beating the top two in the world along the way..

In other, more significant ways, it has been his most damaging. In November 2020, prominent tennis writer Ben Rothenberg would write a piece for Racquet Magazine titled “Olya’s Story”. He would supplement this with a second piece in August 2021 (in the aftermath of Zverev’s title-winning run in Cincinnati, and arguably the best tennis he has played in his entire career) for Slate questioning why the ATP hadn’t addressed the story in question.

Olga Sharypova is Sascha’s former partner, who has accused him of domestic abuse on several accounts dating back to 2019, the details of which can be found in Rothenberg’s two articles, interviewing Olya and helping her get her story out into the world. At this moment in time, the ATP has finally begun an ‘investigation’ into these allegations, although there is no certainty about whether this is just for posterity or actually contains some substance.

Midway through the Laver Cup in September, Zverev would be overheard saying to his Team Europe teammates that their opponents in Team World wouldn’t win another point. World captain John McEnroe (never known as one to mince his words) would gee up his team by saying “f*ck this guy.” American number one Reilly Opelka would add on by stating “He also said he was innocent.” A cynic might put this off as something said in competitive spirit, but there were no punches held here: Zverev’s contemporaries (at least enough of them) believe Olya. Most of the tennis-watching community does too.

Zverev also faces a custody battle with the mother of his child and another former partner, Brenda Patea, over their daughter Mayla. Patea has on multiple occasions called Sascha out for lying about his involvement in her pregnancy. From the women closest to Alexander Zverev, the test of character doesn’t stand him in good stead.

There are no longer any conversations about Alexander Zverev the tennis player without mentions of Alexander Zverev the domestic abuser. As an up-and-coming fresh-faced youngster on the tour in 2017, he was heralded as the next big thing for tennis, but now as it comes to fruition in a time as he is playing some of his most thrilling tennis — big serves, huge and pinpoint groundstrokes, unbelievably good defence for a player of his size — his history off the court rightfully takes precedence in the discourse surrounding him. It has in turn become difficult to root for him on the court, as his antics (smashing rackets, griping with umpires, shouting in the general vicinity of his box) only seem to hint at a personality and demeanor which grows uglier and uglier, even as his game grows stronger, in a twisted, Dorian Gray-esque reversal of his public perception.

Why, then, is it different for Cristiano Ronaldo? Why are the accusations against him so often brushed under a carpet, put out of sight and out of mind? Why aren’t his big, important goals (his goals have salvaged two wins and a draw in the Champions League already, cementing his status as the most clutch player the sport has borne witness to) counteracted with the same questions Zverev’s successes are? Why is it that when women choose to state that they believe Kathryn Mayorga on Twitter, they are ruthlessly attacked by Ronaldo fanboys on that platform? And why is it scoffed at when any form of hypocrisy is called out on social media, when those claims are perfectly valid? Is it just because he’s the most famous athlete on the planet? Does that provide him insulation, just because he’s too big?

Or is it an issue which lies outside the idea of personality and the sports themselves? Domestic violence and sexual assault do have a certain dissonance chafing against each other, at least in the discourse which surrounds the two crimes, despite the fact that both are heinous and incredibly personal crimes, far more often than not against women, and betraying a disbalance in power in the relationships involved. Zverev’s aggression and violence against his partner are almost seen as less of a problem than Ronaldo’s assault, and therefore become easier to talk about and pin on him: does this method of considering these crimes provide anything except for another ill-required layer of protection to alleged rapists?

Conversations regarding this side of sports are something which don’t happen close to often enough at the highest levels of sports. In fact, it is a failure of the general culture which surrounds sports from the most casual stages, all the way upwards, especially when it comes to men’s sports, and one which continues to chip away at the manner in which athletes are perceived. At its best and cleanest, there is a sense of brotherhood, unity, and togetherness which defines team sports, and even individual sports where rival athletes cannot help but spend time in one another’s company. This, however, can quickly turn sour and does so too often, far too often, edged with a very obvious but too easily ignored hint of toxicity to be hidden away and ignored as a mere by-product of locker room talk and the chorus of ‘men will be men’. When this is the kind of credo which envelops athletes from when they step into their sports right until they hit superstardom, questions need to be asked, and might well be cause for a wholesale realignment of the lens through which we view our sporting heroes.

In the last month, I have found myself supporting both these individuals, for my own entirely sports-centric, selfish reasons. Zverev as he looked to play spoilsport in Novak Djokovic’s quest for a historic calendar year grand slam in the US Open, and Ronaldo as he plays as the striker for Manchester United, the team I support with a passion. And I have found myself questioning whether that is the right thing to do, given the possibility of truth which lies within the allegations made against these two athletes.

For Manchester United, I celebrate Marcus Rashford’s goals, just as I do for all his heartwarming actions off the field in providing schoolchildren across Britain with the guarantee of meals. If I can celebrate the good for Rashford (which I should, as should all Man United fans who have watched him grow both as a player and as a wonderful human being with a heart of gold) both on and off the football pitch, and combine the two when I consider the concept of Marcus Rashford, shouldn’t I do the same for Cristiano Ronaldo? Should I be celebrating the goals he scores for my team, with the knowledge of what he has been accused of? 

It doesn’t sit right, and many will argue that the solution is simple: do not support the man at all. Sports are incredibly secondary in such a circumstance — and of course, they are completely correct. It might be an insult to Mayorga and to Sharypova to even just make the mention of sports in this conversation, to add the qualifier of a sports fan in my attempts to write about this. And yet, because these men are important sporting personalities, it feels essential to not shy away from the response that emanates from that half of the discussion.

There shouldn’t be an expectation of these men to be perfect in all they do and say: they are simply people who are incredibly good at their career, and didn’t sign up for being seen as heroes or idols. But this does not detract from the fact that they have earned a platform for themselves through their excellence, and this means they do need to have a higher sense of awareness around what they do and how they present themselves than the average person. When crimes like Zverev’s and Ronaldo’s come to light, they must be aware of the fact that it not only impacts and hurts their victims (something which goes without saying) but also those who have supported them before these revelations. There’s a greater responsibility which follows their stature, and their failure to uphold that responsibility — and often, complete undoing of it — can be seismic.

My natural instinct is to celebrate when I see the ball leave Ronaldo’s boot and hit the net, something which he does with so much proficiency in high-pressure situations, when instinct drives the entirety of a fan’s response. I am not sure if that is something which I should change, or if Man United aren’t deserving of my support because of their acceptance of an alleged rapist into their ranks, or if that is too drastic a response when it comes to a club I have supported since I was six years old. Every question only births more, and sports aren’t especially well-equipped to deal with these questions, especially when they depend financially on these athletes. Money talks, and while Zverev and Ronaldo continue to be seen as larger-than-life, there might be no way to escape this circle of excuse-making and a refusal to demand accountability.

The fact remains that we as sports fans need to be more sensitive about stories of sexual abuse, and not so quick to turn away from the weight that those allegations carry when they are brought up. There also shouldn’t be the flippancy which can sometimes accompany them, in the knowledge that these are the emotions and experiences of real people that are being joked about online or in stadium chants across the world. Equally, of course, one shouldn’t jump the gun and villainize these individuals on the chance that they are indeed innocent, but in both cases, one thing holds true: it needs to be talked about and taken stock of. 

I don’t have a concrete answer to my question yet, and I’m not sure if I ever will. But I know it’s something I need to consider and be willing to learn more about, and by extension the larger sporting community too — a collection of people where voices can be drowned out amidst negativity, and therefore be incredibly callous. To contend with these players as individuals, as a whole, we need to be prepared to consider it in the first place. No exceptions.

Kartikay Dutta
Kartikay is a literature student at Ashoka University. He loves watching, talking, and writing about all things sport, and is a contributing writer at ALMA Magazine.