The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An unwanted kiss reflects gender inequalities — in sports and beyond

People demonstrate in support of Jenni Hermoso, a forward on Spain's women's soccer team, in Madrid on Monday. (Isabel Infantes/Reuters)
3 min

It seems only a matter of time before Spanish soccer is rid of its top official, Luis Rubiales, who planted an apparently unwelcome, unwarranted and — though it was news to him — unacceptable kiss on the lips of a player after the Women’s World Cup final this month. The tsunami of calls for his removal or resignation as head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation has grown daily ever since. It now encompasses not only players (both women and men), coaches and all 19 of the sport’s regional chiefs in Spain but also the government itself, which has begun proceedings to suspend him.

He should resign now, rather than waiting to see whether he will be forced out.

Of course, the voice that matters most is that of the player herself, Jenni Hermoso, a star forward who said after the incident, following Spain’s victory over England in Sydney, that she felt “vulnerable and the victim of an aggression.” Mr. Rubiales has defended his actions and said the kiss was consensual. Ms. Hermoso was subsequently subjected to gaslighting and verbal abuse from not only Mr. Rubiales but also others in the world of soccer and beyond.

They variously suggested the kiss was consensual (which she insists it was not), no big deal (which it was) and an impulsive gesture amid the joy of victory. There were other such non-excuse excuses, each reflecting the traditional rationales men have granted themselves to justify aggressive sexual behavior toward women.

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Many of those voices have fallen silent in the days since the Aug. 20 incident, and a number of prominent figures from Spanish soccer who stood to applaud Mr. Rubiales when he announced his refusal to resign last week are now calling for him to step down.

That’s a salutary shift that suggests the tide is turning, somewhat, on attitudes toward sexual aggression in sports and elsewhere.

In some important ways, Spain has been a pioneer in protecting women and promoting gender equality, including by enacting legislation reclassifying any nonconsensual sex as rape. It has also moved aggressively to target domestic violence against women. The right-wing party Vox, which has embraced chauvinistic rhetoric and stances, including by opposing government moves to combat domestic sexual violence, lost substantial ground in this summer’s national elections. It now holds fewer than one-tenth of the seats in Spain’s parliament.

Still, the country’s independent football association, run by an assembly, has not ejected Mr. Rubiales, which it could do by a two-thirds vote. As it happens, just six of the assembly’s 140 members are women.

That is symptomatic of the continuing grip that men often hold on sports, as well as on other popular, influential and powerful institutions. Slowly, it is changing, and incidents such as this one might serve as object lessons that could accelerate that shift.

In that regard, it was heartening that soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, has suspended Mr. Rubiales for three months from participation in all national and international soccer activities, and has opened disciplinary proceedings against him. The Spanish government, too, has filed a complaint with a Spanish sports tribunal over his alleged “serious misconduct.” Spanish prosecutors have undertaken a preliminary examination into what they called “incidents that could constitute a crime of sexual assault.” Spanish women’s groups have organized demonstrations around the country demanding Mr. Rubiales’s removal.

The Spanish team’s triumph at the Women’s World Cup was an occasion for celebrations and joy at home. Sadly, it will also be remembered, and tainted, by Mr. Rubiales’s misconduct, which merits his departure.

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