How a kiss is unveiling sexism in sports

I wasn’t respected,” proclaimed Spain forward Jenni Hermoso, breaking her silence on the issue that has considerably overshadowed Spain’s historic victory at the Fifa Women’s World Cup. The controversy was sparked by the actions of Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s football federation, who, after the final match, congratulated Hermoso by kissing her on the lips.

On Aug. 25, Hermoso refuted Rubiales’ claims that he had sought her consent. She said the kiss was neither consensual nor enjoyable, and that Rubiales’ accounts of the incident are “categorically false and part of the manipulative culture he himself has generated.” Hermoso also said that she refuses to give in to the “continuous pressure” she has received to provide a statement that could justify his actions.

The football player’s words stood in stark contrast to the earlier statement issued by the Royal Spanish Football Federation, suggesting that Hermoso saw the kiss as a “spontaneous mutual gesture.” Many, including Spanish politicians, have since condemned the act as inappropriate, calling for the federation president’s resignation. However, Rubiales remains adamant that he will not voluntarily step down from his role, asserting that he has fallen victim to “fake feminism” and character assassination. As of writing, Fifa has provisionally suspended him for 90 days while its disciplinary committee investigates his conduct.

If Rubiales comes across as someone who thinks he’s untouchable, it might stem from history seemingly aligning with his side, concerning the handling of inappropriate conduct within the sport. In 2022, the Fifa Ethics Committee decided not to impose any sanctions on Argentinian coach Diego Guacci, despite accusations of sexual abuse and harassment against him by five professional female players. This prompted the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels (FIFPRO), representing 65,000 players globally, to question the resolution. They not only criticized the lack of an opportunity for players to appeal but also highlighted how the decision “raises profoundly serious inquiries about how professional football ensures players’ safety.”

FIFPRO’s concerns are well-founded. Studies have shown that one of the main reasons why victims of abuse and harassment are discouraged from coming forward is not the fear of repercussions from the perpetrator, but the fear of not being believed and supported should they choose to open up. The dynamics are even more complex in the world of competitive sports. Abusive behavior (e.g., shouting degrading insults) could easily be justified as a necessary part of training. Athletes could feel compelled to tolerate sexist behavior and toxic culture from coaches and management to retain their place in the team. And when this distorted setting becomes their constant frame of reference for “normal” behavior, it also becomes too easy to just bear the burden of discomfort and violation rather than fight against the status quo.

This context serves to render Hermoso’s decision to step forward and demand accountability all the more inspiring and necessary. The incident helped bring to light the systemic issues that grant those in positions of power in the sports world, the brazenness to engage in unacceptable behavior—along with the culture that shelters them from facing repercussions. Before she officially addressed the issue, many people online, mostly men, fiercely defended Rubiales, saying that the backlash was just another example of exaggerated “woke culture.”

By condemning Rubiales’ actions alongside the pressure that she and her family had received to downplay the incident, Hermoso is helping embolden other women to speak up and not let anyone coerce them into silence. This in itself marks a historic milestone—one that resonates not solely with the Spanish football team and other female sporting teams, but with every woman who wants to seek justice against abuse and harassment.

The public outcry, coupled with unrelenting media coverage, also played a pivotal role in preventing the issue from being swept under the rug. Rubiales’ initial response was to brush aside those who criticized him, labeling them as “fools and idiots.” Only as the clamor continued to intensify did he change his tune and extend an apology.

Speaking at the Fifa Women’s Football Convention, Fifa president Gianni Infantino, said that women should “pick the right fights. You have the power to change, to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do.”

Hermoso, along with her teammates and other professional female football players, have declared that they will not play for the Spain national team while the current leaders are in position due to their “inability to recognize errors and accept the consequences.” Members of the coaching staff have also resigned in protest.

The women have spoken and have chosen their fight. The ball is now on Fifa’s field.