World Cup kiss scandal shows allyship in sport has come a long way, but there’s much room to grow

September 12, 2023
Concept illustration of allyship among sports players. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney
Concept illustration of allyship among sports players. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney


Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales resigned Sunday, weeks after being accused of forcibly kissing World Cup-winning player Jenni Hermoso at the Aug. 20 awards ceremony, in a scandal that has overshadowed the Spanish women’s team FIFA World Cup win.

Marissa Pollick
Marissa Pollick

Marissa Pollick, an attorney and lecturer of sport management at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology, is a Title IX expert. She discusses the alleged assault and the allyship for Hermoso and the women’s team that followed.

It took roughly two weeks for the Spain men’s national soccer team to publicly back Hermoso. Why did this allyship take that long?

It’s complicated as to why the men’s team was slow to publicly express support. One reason is that the perpetrator was the head of their sport governing body so it is unsurprising that the men’s team would be reluctant to openly criticize or condemn those in positions of power. Also, it was initially suggested that the kiss was consensual or simply celebratory and inoffensive, although those explanations were obviously implausible given the clear video footage.

Is this level of allyship extraordinary?

This eventual level of allyship is not extraordinary in sport, however, as we have seen, for example, with the U.S. Men’s National Team’s support of equal pay and fair treatment for the U.S. Women’s National Team, at least in their legal filings in support of the womens’ federal lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Ministry of the Presidency. Government of Spain (Attribution or Attribution), via Wikimedia Commons
Ministry of the Presidency. Government of Spain (Attribution or Attribution), via Wikimedia Commons

Do you think the fact that the alleged assault was globally televised made it easier for Hermoso’s allies to support her, even if it meant risking their own careers?

Yes, there was video evidence of him (Rubiales) inappropriately grabbing his crotch during the fan celebration, followed by his restraining and forcibly kissing the women’s player (Hermoso) on the mouth. These incidents were indisputable and later resulted in significant public backlash and threatened team boycott. I think that enabled many to publicly support the woman athlete and her team against the high-ranking executive.

Allyship extends to institutions. FIFA suspended Rubiales for three months while it investigates. Could it and should it have done more?

Rubiales just announced his resignation during the pendency of the investigation. The public pressure and criminal complaint made this outcome likely. I think that the disciplinary suspension pending investigation at the organizational level was appropriate to maintain the appearance of fairness and due process.

The U.S. has also had scandals with emotional, physical and sexual abuse of soccer players. Compared to other sports, does soccer’s particular culture lend itself to bigger problems with activism and allyship and abuse of players?

We have seen an abusive culture in women’s soccer in both the U.S. and abroad. A recent comprehensive investigatory report in the U.S. uncovered rampant sexual harassment and abuse of players by coaches and management. This latest incident in Spain has also revealed a longstanding paternalistic culture toward the women athletes, including not only harassment and abuse, but archaic rules and disparate treatment that disparage and demean women athletes.

Why don’t we see more allyship from the most privileged players in sports overall? For instance, why didn’t more white players take a knee with Colin Kaepernick? Why didn’t more superstar NBA players speak out when Brittney Griner was detained in Russia? Wouldn’t that help improve those racial and gender inequities?

As to white athletes kneeling, it did take time for this allyship to occur following Colin Kaepernick’s initial public activism. Notably, Kaepernick suffered career consequences throughout the NFL for his actions. However, when the George Floyd murder later captured the nation’s attention, there was a marked increase in white athletes across all sports kneeling to protest racial injustice and shed light on other human rights issues.

As to Griner, while there were some NBA players speaking out, I would agree that the majority of the support and advocacy for her came from WNBA players and coaches who knew her and cared about her well-being. The geopolitical overtones of the Griner situation likely influenced some to avoid taking a position. My personal view is that it will help when more male athletes recognize that gender equity and allyship in sports is also a men’s issue, emphasizing cooperation rather than dominance.