Jenni Hermoso’s stunning performance at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup final was overshadowed by a scandal after Royal Spanish Soccer Federation president Luis Rubiales inexplicably kissed her onstage at the medal presentation. Rubiales’s assault has provoked a firestorm from fans and the Spanish women’s team players. Dave Zirin dishes out his take on what the incident tells us about the persistence of patriarchy in women’s sports in this edition of “Choice Words.”
Luis Rubiales has since resigned from his post and is now under a restraining order preventing him from being within 200 meters of Jenni Hermoso. After weeks of boycotting their team, the Spanish women’s players have returned following interventions by the Spanish government and promises of reforms.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen
Dave Zirin: And now I’ve got some choice words. Okay, look, when is a kiss not just a kiss?Maybe when it’s a non-consensual assault. Maybe when it’s symbolic of years of disrespect by disreputable men with power. This kiss is what the world got to see after the Spanish women completed their World Cup triumph, beating England one to nothing in the finale. It was an improbable journey to a victory that in its aftermath was damaged. Immediately after the match, Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales forcibly gave star striker Jennifer Hermoso an unwanted and firm kiss on the mouth. Rubiales is now being roundly criticized across Spain and the soccer world. Spanish journalists have called him simply disgusting. Politicians across the board are calling for his resignation. Male players, female players; all of them calling for Rubiales to go.
And his response to this controversy? At first it was to double down. He said, “The kiss with Jenni? There are idiots all over. When two people have a moment of affection without any importance, we can’t listen to idiocy.” Now, it was only after people roundly called for his ouster did he apologize in a video statement. But at the end of the apology, unable to help himself, he had to say, “Here we didn’t understand the controversy, because we saw something natural, normal, and in no way, I repeat, with bad faith. But outside of the bubble it looks like it has turned into a storm. And so, if there are people who have felt offended, I have to say I’m sorry.”
Look, he clearly thinks he did nothing wrong, and he certainly did not apologize to Hermoso, who should be enjoying her triumph instead of dealing with this jackass. She was asked about the kiss afterwards and said, “Hey, I didn’t like it.” Hermoso has since tried to play down the situation, but then after that she has said that it’s utterly unacceptable. Clearly she’s being pulled in a lot of directions, but her belief is that it was wrong. And Spain’s acting Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has even weighed in as well saying that he should step down. But even before Pedro Sánchez, Yolanda Diaz, Spain’s acting Second Deputy Prime Minister, called for his resignation. And I want to read what Diaz wrote on social media. She wrote, “Our most resounding combination for what we saw. Nothing more and nothing less. A woman has been harassed and assaulted. Rubiales’ excuses are useless. What we ask for is for the sports law to be applied and for the sports federation protocols to be activated. This person should resign.”
Now, Rubiales has made clear that he would not resign at all and would have to be fired. Again, he thinks he did nothing wrong. As Nancy Armour wrote for USA Today, “The Spanish Federation posted an emoji of an index finger raised in the number one sign. But a middle finger would’ve been more appropriate, because that’s essentially what the federation was giving its players. Coach Vilda is not one of those coaches who deserve credit for their victory. It is Spain’s exceptional players who are responsible for the World Cup title. Their skills were honed with their clubs, Barcelona primarily, not with the national team. His players are also talented, that all Vilda had to do is hand in a lineup and stay out of their way, and he could barely manage that.”
I also spoke to Brenda Elsey, a professor at Hofstra and co-author of the book Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America. And people might remember Brenda Elsey from this program. She was a former guest. And she said to me that the leaders of Spain’s soccer world possess, quote, “Sexism matched only by their greed.” She continued, “In the early 2010s, this generation knew their talent was being stymied by the federation’s blatant mismanagement of the national team in the domestic professional league. Protests have resulted in better conditions, if uneven and imperfect. This World Cup was a tale of players outshining the anachronistic sexists who run global football. If the Rubiales and Vilda thought they would get credit for the brilliance of these players, they must be sorely disappointed.”
It is a blessed joy that the people of Spain have embraced this team with thousands greeting them upon their return home. Fans held watch parties in more than 100 cities. According to Armour, women’s soccer in Spain is exploding in popularity despite the decades of patriarchal abuse and mismanagement. As the players glow in their triumph, they also need to seize the opportunity to change the soccer culture, to make Spanish soccer hostile to the sexists and ensure women’s soccer gets the resources and the coaching that they deserve. As Armour wrote, “It’s not fair to ask Spain’s players to continue fighting for equality when all they should be doing is celebrating. It’s infuriating that the players’ greatest accomplishment has to forever be linked to their second class treatment. But that’s how it is for women athletes. A win on the field isn’t the end of the fight. It has to be the beginning, or things will never change.”
And I’ll just add one more note to this. This story is ongoing. By the time people see this, Rubiales may be gone. He again is refusing to resign. He is saying, “You have to fire me.” He’s acting, frankly, like the patriarchal bastard that he has shown himself to be throughout this entire process. But there is a movement afoot right now to get him gone, and hopefully by the time y’all hear these words, he will be.
And now in our Baltimore studio for our segment Ask a Sports Scholar, we have Theresa Runstedtler talking about her smash book, which has received a ton of play. It’s called Black Ball: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Spencer Haywood, and the Generation that Saved the Soul of the NBA. Professor Runstedtler, how are you?