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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Friday, April 19, 2024

Spanish women’s soccer controversy: unmasking gender inequality

A non-consensual kiss overshadowed the Spanish team’s victory in the Women’s World Cup.

The 2023 Women's World Cup is pictured.

Content warning: This article mentions sexual assault.

On Aug. 20, when the Spanish women’s national soccer team won the World Cup final against England, the nation should have been celebrating with triumphant spirit. However, the spotlight shifted dramatically from a prideful national victory to Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.

During the post-victory ceremony, Rubiales put both his hands on Jennifer Hermoso, a Spanish footballer for Spain women’s national team, and forcibly kissed her on the lips. Broadcasted on national TV, the unsettling act sparked a national and global uproar. Hermoso recounted the assault, “I felt vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out-of-place act without any consent on my part.” Hermoso’s outspoken protest regarding this non-consensual kiss is a revolt against the sexist culture of silence and impunity surrounding such behaviors.

Although Rubiales initially apologized for his actions, he immediately contradicted himself by reiterating that the kiss had been “consensual,” repeating “I will not resign” five times and describing his critics as “false feminists” in his speech at the RFEF General Assembly. As a result of Rubiales’ retraction and controversial behavior, FIFA suspended him, ultimately leading to his resignation from both the RSFF presidency and Union of European Football Association vice presidency positions on Sept. 10. In addition to his suspension and prosecution, the Spanish court ordered a 200-meter restraining order against Rubiales towards Hermoso. Rubiales described his forced resignation as “excessive prosecution” and his family found the consequences of his actions unjust. His mother, Anjela Marca, asked “Why people are being so cruel to him?” in an interview and then went on a hunger strike and locked herself in a church due to the “bloodthirsty and inhumane hunt” for her son. 

Rubiales’s behavior is not an isolated incident of entrenched sexism across women’s sports, whether it be comments about women playing soccer on turf or unequal prize money. There is a clear vicious cycle where sexism leads to general underinvestment in women’s sports, which causes greater normalization of sexism in sports. As women’s sports receive less funding and marketing from the onset, men’s sports ultimately get more exposure and viewership than women’s sports. Sexism has also manifested in the form of sexual assault cases in different women’s sports. In 2018, 256 young women came forward about being sexually assaulted by the former team doctor for the USA women’s gymnastics team. The initial response from the FBI and USA Gymnastics was to disregard the claims, which further perpetuated the culture of silence and impunity in women’s sports. Cases like these cause detrimental damage to female athletes’ physical and mental health, hence, these issues must be addressed and changed.

Hermoso’s outspokenness encouraged solidarity in women’s soccer by igniting a vital conversation about accountability, sexism and misogyny. More than 80 Spanish soccer players spoke out about how they would not return to the national team if the current leaders remained in their positions and demanded a full reorganization of the national federation. As a response, Pedro Rocha, the interim RFEF president, stated he would be working for the “regeneration of the federation” and in turn had fired Jorge Vilda, who had inappropriately touched a female staff member. Rocha then appointed Montse Tomé, the first female RFEF president, as Vilda’s replacement. The suspension of Rubiales and immediate appointment of Tomé gave a clear message of how the impunity culture will diminish and how such behavior will not be tolerated. However, there are still many other issues to be tackled that have long been swept under the rug.

While some think that the Rubiales controversy redirected the attention from the victory, others believe it held powerful sports representatives and leagues accountable to face the consequences of their actions.  The unwanted kiss shouldn’t cast a shadow over Spain’s World Cup victory, nor should it be yet another dismissed and forgotten story. Rather, it should remain a stark reminder of the urgent need for gender equality in sports and call attention to how pervasive sexism is in women’s sports. Once respect, dignity and equality replace sexism, impunity and misogyny, we can truly celebrate the victories of courageous, talented and successful athletes.