By Konnor McIntosh
In 2009, Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and some of his business associates traveled to Las Vegas for a vacation. Through social mingling, Ronaldo met Kathryn Mayorga, a then 24-year-old American part-time model, at a hotel nightclub. Mayorga alleges that Ronaldo sexually assaulted her later that night and called police at around 2 a.m. on June 13, 2009, but did not name Ronaldo specifically due to fear of public backlash. A few months later after mentioning Ronaldo’s name for the first time, Mayorga and Ronaldo signed a non-disclosure agreement worth reportedly $375,000 and nothing was heard of the case for seven years. The tone of the statements in response by Ronaldo and his team acknowledge something happened but seem to be tone-deaf to the severity of the accusations.
In 2017, German magazine Der Speigel received a tip from investigative soccer journalist website Football Leaks, which had documents of the allegations with Mayorga being mentioned under a pseudonym. Although this was published, the story didn’t receive international attention until this past September when Mayorga personally went to Der Speigel and wrote about the disturbing details of the incident that night. Mayorga claims that the recent #MeToo movement inspired her to come forward and share her story. Ronaldo and his attorney quickly denied allegations and threatened to sue Der Speigel. His team also claims that the documents brought forth by the magazine were “fabricated,” a statement which included claims of a hacker selling information to publications and documents being altered to include language that Ronaldo never used. Ronaldo’s sponsors, including Electronic Arts, Nike, and other companies responded on social media, including his current team, Juventus FC in Italy.
For Ronaldo, his reputation is obviously at stake not only in the eyes of fans but for his off the field endorsements as well. In 2017, Ronaldo made €94 million, €41 million of which came from endorsements. Any criminal charge may threaten to end Ronaldo’s career, as he is 33 years old and in the twilight of his career as a player. For the companies themselves, having Ronaldo be the face of their brand and choosing to back him could be detrimental to the integrity of the company if found guilty. Ronaldo has a huge following globally and is one of the most accomplished players in history, having won every major tournament besides the World Cup. In his hometown of Madeira, Portugal, he has a museum, hotel, and airports named after him. If charges against him are true, it would be a PR nightmare for the city that honored him with so much.
Nike and Electronic Arts released swift responses as well as Ronaldo in the aftermath of this. Nike’s statement to Associated Press read “We are deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations and will continue to closely monitor the situation.” EA took it a step further, as they released a statement reading: “We have seen the concerning report that details allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo,” EA Sports told the AP. “We are closely monitoring the situation, as we expect cover athletes and ambassadors to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with EA’s values.” EA went a step further in removing Ronaldo’s picture off of the cover for FIFA 19 on the EA Sports website until the investigation is complete. Because FIFA is such a huge moneymaker for EA globally and having someone like Ronaldo represent the brand only helps promote it, I wonder if EA will take the same actions if he is guilty as they did with cutting Tiger Woods for a far less serious crime. The same standards must apply for EA and its “values” to all of its athletes, not just the less important ones from a business sense.
Portugal’s exhibition matches during the international break were of high importance due to upcoming Euro 2020 qualification, and Portugal’s manager Fernando Santos, as well as higher ups for the national team, decided it would be the right thing to do for all parties to not have Ronaldo represent the country at this time. This was a positive because it avoids a distraction for other players looking to make a name for themselves and allows Ronaldo to focus on the investigation. It is fair to wonder, however, if the same course of action would have been taken if this came out right before the World Cup, one of the most important sports tournaments worldwide.
Ronaldo’s original Twitter statement said the right things: “I firmly deny the accusations being issued against me. Rape is an abominable crime that goes against everything that I am and believe in;” He did an Instagram live story with fans a few days later saying Mayorga was “fake news” and that people are trying to use his name and stature “to get a paycheck.” Regardless if this is true, Ronaldo’s best route is to let the court prove that and not potentially be victim blaming. Harassment in a case like this does not help anyone, and Ronaldo’s associates have had to have known better than to let him talk about the case on a free forum like Instagram.
Ronaldo’s club team in Italy, Juventus FC, was not only late to issue a response by four days but the message and the tone of the statement was highly insensitive and missing the point: “Cristiano Ronaldo has shown in recent months his great professionalism and dedication, which is appreciated by everyone at Juventus. The events allegedly dating back almost 10 years do not change this opinion, which is shared by anyone who has come into contact with this great champion.” The message misses the mark as if him being a great champion on the field somehow correlates with him being able to behave himself off the field. This message may have been worded poorly or mistranslated from Italian to English, but either way, it is not a good look for Juventus, who just this year spent approximately €89 million to bring him in from Real Madrid. The statement also reads as if he is too good of a player for them to care what people accuse him of. Juventus was met with harsh criticism because of this statement, none summed up better than Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Robinson’s tweet: “So while Portugal leaves Cristiano Ronaldo off the national team and Nike calls the rape allegations against him ‘disturbing,’ Juventus responds by... backing their 80 million Euro investment unequivocally.”
From a sponsor standpoint, I believe EA and Nike did a good job with expressing concern but also waiting for the case to be resolved and not jumping to conclusions. As with Ronaldo and Juventus, I felt their messages were tone deaf and putting the pressure on the supposed victim. My recommendation going forward for Ronaldo is to apologize for his Instagram live rant and for Juventus to release a new statement expressing the severity of the situation. Ronaldo not playing isn’t going to happen because this case could drag on for months, but it would be wise to just let the court decide if Ronaldo is guilty or not and not openly rant against Mayorga. Ronaldo has been in the news over the years due to a nasty tax-fraud case in Spain that some speculate led him to leave Real Madrid and disassociate with the country completely because of a two-year suspended prison sentence being levied against him. Ronaldo was ordered to pay €18.8 million and many feel his image and reputation helped him avoid actually serving time in jail. Due to this, many are not giving him the benefit of the doubt when he used the excuse: “They are using me for my fame.”
In the case of former athletes such as NBA star Kobe Bryant, a settlement out of court even though most assumed he was guilty did not cause Nike to drop him. Nike has always stood by controversial athletes, but the reports from this case are too damning to keep even someone as big as Ronaldo around. The fact that the supposed victim felt she couldn’t talk for eight years and having it be true is automatic grounds for removal as the face of a company. When the result of doing the right thing comes at a financial cost, companies such as Nike have too often failed to properly react. Now we will see how EA, Juventus, and others react if Ronaldo, one of the richest athletes in the world, is found guilty. While the legal process needs to still play out, the importance of public relations can not only affect the public perception of a team or company but can also undermine an athlete whose words can not only affect their brand but how we view them as people.