Rape Allegations Against Man Utd Player Force Football To Confront an Enabling, Toxic Fan Culture
A crisis confronts football, as a young player named Mason Greenwood, touted as an emerging star, the “next Ronaldo,” and generally heaped with praise and the promise of greatness, has been accused of rape and threats to kill. With the survivor having had to broadcast evidence before the whole world in order for it to be taken seriously, the case is prompting questions about whether this, finally, will usher in football’s #MeToo moment.
This isn’t the first allegation of sexual assault against a high-profile player. Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps the most celebrated of football stars accused of rape. During the early stages of an initial investigation, Ronaldo admitted that the woman “said no and stop several times,” but later changed his answer. A few years later, when the Los Angeles police reopened the investigation, prosecutors promptly closed it again due to being unable to prove the allegations “beyond reasonable doubt.”
Recently, the player’s return to football club Manchester United was celebrated with much fanfare, and the allegations were brushed under the carpet. As the world’s best football player, his transfer from one club to another was the subject of much debate and jubilation. The feminist group Level Up, however, did have one final word in the whole matter: flying a plane with a banner “#Believe Kathryn Mayorga” over Old Trafford, the team’s home turf, where Ronaldo played his “return” game for Manchester United.
However, ardent fans of the player and of the club continue to vilify the survivor as a “gold digger” who “did it for attention.” When fans are asked to take a stand involving their favorite players, too often, it is on the side opposite survivors who must move mountains just to be heard, let alone believed. The allegations against Mason Greenwood appear to deviate slightly from the pattern, but arguably only because of the survivor posting evidence on social media. Still, although Greenwood has been cut from sponsorship partnerships with Nike and removed from FIFA, he remains on Manchester United’s payroll even as the investigation is ongoing.
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Manchester United is by no means the only club complicit. Manchester City decided against suspending another star player, Benjamin Mendy, who played while under an open police investigation for rape — four charges of it, involving three women. He continued to play for nine months. “The bottom line, however, is that decision was very different to what might reasonably have been expected outside the football bubble,” The Athletic noted.
In 2015, Sunderland suspended Adam Johnson, arrested on suspicion of sexual activity with a minor, for two weeks before lifting it. Johnson was later convicted. It shows that football, specifically, has a fan base that is willing to let a lot slide in service of “glory” of the sport. But whose glory is it, anyway?
“There is a 20-year-old male footballer under police investigation and United have shown where their allegiance lies. And it certainly does not feel like it is with any victim or the hundreds of thousands of women and girls who may have seen that harrowing social media content and thought: ‘Who the hell would I turn to if that was me?'” The Athletic notes, about Manchester United’s lukewarm response to the Greenwood allegations.
Misogyny in football fandom is a shadow that the sport has never seriously grappled with. It reaches a fever pitch during big tournaments; much research and statistical evidence have shown a causal relationship between football losses and domestic violence in England. Another study on fan message boards showed that there is an openly misogynistic attitude towards women’s sport among male football fans.
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The rot runs deep, and is more than just institutional — it’s cultural. More specifically, it’s rape culture. For all the lip service towards progressive values of gender equality, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, nothing actually happens when it really matters. And fans play a key role in protecting celebrated players from any accountability. Talented sports stars carry a halo of glory and legacy that makes them too great to ever touch.
When put on a pedestal as gods on Earth, representing the pinnacle of the human form, strength, and physical prowess, there is very little that can taint such a perception. Because when it comes to sport — a cultural phenomenon that carries great emotional heft among ordinary people — there is almost nothing that can convince fans that there are some things worth caring about more than a few points in a few games.
Some speculate that things may be about to change, with the Greenwood allegations. But what would have happened if the survivor didn’t have evidence to protect herself not only from Greenwood and defence lawyers, but also the whole world and legions of die-hard fans? Everyone is fully aware of how differently this could have gone in that situation — and therein lies the problem.
It would take a large-scale rejection of the traditional values that sports represent — glory, healthy competition, and rugged team spirit. It stopped being healthy long ago, and team spirit is often a facade for team collusion. This change has to come from fans themselves, for it is in their names that football clubs are willing to keep violence under wraps — as long as it happens off the playing field.