An Unwanted Kiss Might Help Change Women’s Soccer, but It Should Never Have Come to This

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 20: President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales (R) kisses Jennifer Hermoso of Spain (L) during the medal ceremony of FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Final match between Spain and England at Stadium Australia on August 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Noemi Llamas/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images)

At the end of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was a kiss that showed the world exactly what Spain’s La Roja had to endure to become champions.

No sooner had star midfielder Jennifer Hermoso accepted her medal than the head of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), Luis Rubiales, clutched her head, jumped on her and wrapped his legs around her torso, planted his lips on hers, and then smacked her behind as she continued down the receiving line, which included both Spanish and international dignitaries. The boorishness, which is being investigated as assault by Spanish prosecutors, wasn’t a fluke: that night, he also hoisted her teammate Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder and grabbed his crotch during the trophy presentation in front of tens of millions of viewers around the world.

“I want to reiterate as I did before that I did not like this incident.”

Hermoso’s denunciation of the forced grab — of her lips and body, as well as the world’s attention away from her team’s celebratory moment — has ruptured Spanish football, leading to widespread protests and calls for Rubiales’s resignation. After initially apologizing, Rubiales defended himself, claiming that Hermoso initiated the act and accusing his critics of “false feminism,” per The New York Times. Hermoso countered, writing in a statement: “I want to make it clear that at no time did the conversation to which Mr. Luis Rubiales refers to in his address take place, and, above all, was his kiss ever consensual. I want to reiterate as I did before that I did not like this incident.” She continued: “. . . I feel the need to report this incident because I believe that no person, in any work, sports, or social setting should be a victim of these types of non-consensual behaviors. I felt vulnerable and a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out of place act without any consent on my part.”

The kiss itself is an image that symbolizes the misogyny and abuse that women athletes have long suffered in soccer, and sports in general. If that’s how Rubiales acts in a receiving line in which he stood alongside Spain’s Queen Letizia, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, imagine what he may have done and said behind closed doors; a former colleague has already alleged previous harassment in the wake of the World Cup final.

The kiss itself is an image that symbolizes the misogyny and abuse that women athletes have long suffered.

Of course, many women, athletes or not, don’t have to imagine. They can simply refer back to their own experience with harassment, abuse, and assault by their coaches, trainers, bosses, and teachers — and the subsequent attempts, either private or public or both, to recast and redefine the harms inflicted on them by those in more powerful positions. The kiss symbolizes all of the patronizing, the groping, the forced closeness, and the gaslighting we now know as textbook. That Hermoso could achieve the greatest victory in sports on behalf of her country, and despite support from many in the public and in government in one of western Europe’s most egalitarian countries, Rubiales still has not resigned or been fired by the football federation — with a suspension and investigation by FIFA, no less — shows that even at the highest levels of work, women must push back to be believed.

On Aug. 25, the USWNT’s Alex Morgan tweeted what so many women have echoed: “I’m disgusted by the public actions of Luis Rubiales. I stand by Jenni Hermoso and the Spanish players. Winning a World Cup should be one of the best moments in these players’ lives, but instead, it’s overshadowed by assault, misogyny, and failures by the Spanish federation.”

This obviously isn’t a problem contained in Spain or Europe. In 2022, US Soccer released the former Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates’s damning independent probe into abuse and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer.

“Our investigation has revealed a league [the National Women’s Soccer League] in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the report reads. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.” (The NWSL has said it will implement the changes recommended in the report to curb future abuse.)

Similarly, USA Gymnastics is still grappling with the aftermath of the sexual abuse of team doctor Larry Nassar’s long reign of terror and the FBI’s failure to properly investigate him and the organization. That Simone Biles, the most accomplished woman in the history of gymnastics, had already won several gold medals before testifying about the abuse also speaks to the immense mental and physical suffering these athletes have to endure to win.

The most heartbreaking reality is that there are so many girls who had the potential to become the next Biles or Hermoso yet faced the misogyny and abuse that would deprive them, and us, from seeing them reach their potential.

And yet, Hermoso did succeed in this flawed structure. Before the tournament, Spain’s national team had already grappled with their problematic coach, Jorge Vilda. In 2022, 15 players sent letters to the RFEF saying they would no longer play for the national team if coaching changes weren’t made, saying the situation had “significantly” affected their “emotional state,” per Bleacher Report. On the night of the World Cup final, Vilda was also caught on video appearing to touch a woman staff member’s breast.

Hermoso and her teammates did more than win the tournament. Despite the ugly shadow Rubiales cast on the moment, he did more to make the case against him and the institutions that have failed these women. It should be enough that Hermoso said the kiss happened “without any consent on my part.” And she shouldn’t have to be a World Cup champion or win any games at all to be taken seriously. But that fact that she did is now causing everyone — from FIFA to Spanish prosecutors, from coaches and Spain’s football organization to the whole world — to examine exactly what she had to endure to get there.

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