The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Strong women gave us a compelling World Cup. Weak men obscured it.

For the time being, Luis Rubiales remains the president of Spain's soccer federation. (Manu Fernandez/AP)
7 min

It has been a dismaying wait for snail justice. More than a week ago, Luis Rubiales went all cave man while supposedly celebrating the women who delivered Spain a World Cup championship. And he’s still — technically, tenuously — the Spanish soccer president.

The long process, though sad and sickening, is nothing more than the usual rigmarole to hold a man accountable for his vile acts. At least this saga can’t hide. Rubiales had the audacity to be at his worst on the sport’s grandest stage. He grabbed Jenni Hermoso, Spain’s star striker, by the head and planted an unwanted kiss on her mouth. He flung forward Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder. He tugged at his crotch while standing close to Queen Letizia and her 16-year-old daughter.

Rubiales clearly doesn’t deserve to be leading anything other than an apology parade, but rather than swift action to remove him as the head of the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF), there has been a painful, incremental walk toward definitive action that elucidates the toxicity of male-dominated systems, in sports and beyond.

From the outside, you think it shouldn’t be this hard. Look inside, however, and every lever is working as designed. To the people in charge, it should be this hard. Rubiales flaunted his misogyny on international television, yet the men with the most power to do something about it have engaged in a sloth-like responsibility relay race. The baton has passed from the Spanish soccer federation to FIFA to Spanish federal prosecutors and others, all of them trying to run through a maze to get to the obvious. It’s as if they need to go through the five stages of grief before ditching a creep.

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What a pathetic exercise. What a revelation, too. If you’ve ever doubted the toxic ineptitude that perpetuates the mistreatment of women, this transparent controversy illustrates it all. This should have been a 48-hour story. Rubiales should have received an indefinite suspension within a day, and the support for the Spain women’s team from these “leaders” should have been so strong and undeniable that Rubiales resigned under pressure the day after that.

While it can take time to execute a formal firing without risking legal ramifications, the RFEF has no excuse for its inhumane reaction while initially defending Rubiales. The systemic shame couldn’t have been more vivid. Instead of protecting the women who led the nation to soccer glory, the institution donned a cape and tried to save Rubiales after he turned defiant, refused to resign and claimed he was the victim of “false feminism” for his impulsive decision to give Hermoso what he dismissed as “a peck.”

As hard as it must have been to outdo Rubiales’s grandiose ignorance, his federation accomplished the embarrassing feat after it sent (and later deleted) a statement that called Hermoso a liar and provided a dangerous misrepresentation of the concept of consent.

Soon after the kiss, Hermoso expressed her discomfort. She later added, “At no time did I consent to the kiss he gave me.” The RFEF tried to tell her and everyone else they imagined an abusive act.

“The facts are what they are, and no matter how many statements are made to distort reality, it is impossible to change what happened,” the organization said in a statement Saturday. “The peak was spoiled. The consent is given at the moment with the conditions of the moment. Later you can think you have made a mistake, but you cannot change reality.”

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Two days later, the soccer federation’s regional presidents demanded that Rubiales resign. Evidently, they finally heeded their own haughty words: You cannot change reality.

That group needed eight days to do the obvious thing, and the same day federal prosecutors opened a sexual assault investigation. FIFA didn’t hand down a 90-day suspension for Rubiales until six days after the incident. It’s not easy to oust a head of soccer state, but the reflex to blame a victim is really damn quick.

The game is so rigged, so ludicrous, that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. This level of sexism is not limited to soccer in Spain, either. It exists in too many systems around the world. This is not merely the shame of soccer or the shame of sports culture. This is a dramatic representation of the ills of a patriarchal society that has yet to be shattered. Spain couldn’t win its first women’s World Cup title without some reckless man, powerful beyond his character, turning crude in the moment. The saga has compelled Spain to reckon with sexism, but every male-dominated sector of the world should be grappling with these issues just the same.

Most will decline to do so, of course. So decency will remain on a hamster wheel.

Rubiales will go down; it’s inevitable now. But that won’t be a triumph of humanity over institution. It will happen because the lingering powerful men will sacrifice Rubiales to protect themselves. He isn’t just bad for business. He’s bad for the dynasty. As much as they despise accountability, losing one will allow the rest to keep winning.

But the public nature of this saga challenges everyone who has paid attention to be better, smarter and less susceptible to the con. Rubiales cannot be treated as an aberrational figure. People like him are everywhere, except they’re abusing in private. Their playbook is the same: deny, discredit, duck repercussions. They keep surviving, doing more harm and making it harder for victims to see the benefits of coming forward. Every once in a while, someone can take down a sexist, but their kind regenerates because the sexism is seldom addressed.

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This maddening situation presents another opportunity to act rather than express outrage and transition to the next thing. There have been more harrowing and long-lasting examples of sexual abuse and misogyny in sports, and many of those involved predators who spent years terrorizing women because no one in power had the courage to stop the mayhem. Those cases had to be pieced together, victim by victim, corroborated story by corroborated story, because they occurred in the shadows.

Rubiales’s action happened in the light of day, amid the glow of celebration. And male leaders still attempted to cover it up or shun responsibility. It magnifies the need for a higher level of gender diversity.

Before the World Cup final, FIFA President Gianni Infantino leaned chauvinistic when discussing equity.

“I say to all women that you have the power to change,” he said. “Pick the right battles; pick the right fights. You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it — just do it. With men, with FIFA, you will find open doors. Just push the doors. They are open.”

For certain, those remarks won’t be fodder for a Nike ad.

Convince us men, huh? Pick the right battles? It would be far more prudent to pick the right leaders and balance their power with effective oversight.

With men hogging those roles, women won’t find open doors often. When they do, they would be smart to close them quickly because, in real time, we’ve witnessed the threat of dangerously powerful men. You cannot change that depressing reality.