Sexual Harassment: Luis Rubiales Resignation and the Urgent Need for a Systemic Change

On August 20, 2023, in Sydney, Australia, the world watched history in the making as Spain won the Women’s World Cup for the very first time. What was supposed to be a joyous and meaningful celebration of the team’s incredible achievement has been overshadowed in the following weeks by the actions of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) president, Luis Rubiales.

Within three weeks of the impeccable victory, the head coach of the team was fired, 11 staff members resigned, and more than 70 players refused to play for the Spanish national team until Rubiales was removed from his position. 

On Sunday, September 10, 2023, the former president of the Spanish Football Federation officially announced his resignation from the organization. This resignation comes long after the scandal of Rubiales planting a non-consensual kiss on the Women’s World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso on August 20. The Spaniard soccer president claimed that the kiss was “mutual,” yet Hermoso stated that it was not consensual, and as a result, she did not feel respected. 

Following Rubiales’ actions, FIFA provisionally suspended the president to allow a disciplinary investigation to be conducted on the matter. Despite the severity of the situation, the Spaniard continued to state that he would not resign from his role in a 30-minute speech he delivered to the federation’s general assembly. 

His reluctance to step down caused the Spanish government to begin legal proceedings to have Rubiales suspended. Additionally, the 19 regional presidents of the Spanish Football Federation held an emergency meeting demanding Rubiales resign from his position. On September 8, Spanish public prosecutors filed a lawsuit against the former president for sexual assault and coercion, seemingly being the last straw that encouraged Rubiales to resign two days later.

Unfortunately, there have been numerous incidents of sexual harassment in the realm of sports, and the perpetrator often has not resigned until they had no other choice. Furthermore, the actions of these perpetrators often tend to overshadow the accomplishments of these impressive athletes, further harming the athletes. Sports systems have continuously failed to protect their athletes from these perpetrators, and often the perpetrator does not immediately get reprimanded.

One of the most notorious cases is with the U.S.A. Gymnastics team and former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar was accused of sexually harassing over 250 gymnasts throughout his career. The first gymnast publicly came forward in 2016, and the following year, the doctor pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. In 2017, over 150 gymnasts publicly came forward, and Nassar once again pleaded guilty, receiving up to 175 years in prison. Acclaimed gold medalists Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas have since distanced themselves from the U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), as the organizations neglected and failed to prevent Nassar’s abuse.

In 2020, six former team U.S.A. swimmers came forward and filed civil lawsuits against the U.S.A. Swimming and three previous coaches of the team. Former swimmers Debra Grodensky, Suzette Moran, Tracy Palmero, and three anonymous female swimmers came forward about the sexual abuse they endured from former U.S. Olympic coach Mitch Ivey, former U.S. national team director Everett Uchiyama, and former coach Andrew King. Grodensky claimed that her sexual abuse was entirely preventable had the U.S.A. Swimming took action on the matter. The civil lawsuits claimed that U.S.A. swimming and local associations were aware of the sexual harassment that was occurring and enabled an abusive culture to transpire within the organization.

Former Chicago Blackhawks player Kyle Beach came forward in 2021 as “John Doe 1,” who had previously filed a lawsuit accusing former video coach Brad Aldrich of sexual misconduct. In 2010, the former player reported the incident to team leaders, yet the Blackhawks’ management ignored the complaint until after the team won the Stanley Cup that year. Beach’s lawsuit claims that executives of the team were aware of the non-consensual sexual acts and that they covered them up. Executives sought to “solve” the incident by offering Aldrich the option of resigning before postseason celebrations.

More recently, in May 2023, two basketball players at New Mexico State University (NMSU), William Benjamin Jr. and Shakiru Odunewu, spoke out about the university’s negligence in various sexual assault and battery instances performed by three teammates. The two players who filed the lawsuit reported these instances to the NMSU coaching staff, yet the abuse continued for months following the report. Once Benjamin had reported the incidents to the police, the university decided to suspend the basketball program and fire the head coach, alleging that it was related to a hazing incident. Odunewu had reported the incident to former head coach Greg Heiar and associate coach Dominique Taylor, and it was alleged that Taylor had laughed in the basketball player’s face, asking Odunewu what he expected the associate coach to do.

These incidents remind the world of the urgent change that needs to transpire in the realm of sports. Numerous other sexual harassment cases have occurred in the sports world, and now, in the 21st Century, a better system needs to be implemented to protect these athletes from these unfortunate occurrences. A systemic change needs to be made within the sports industry that puts athletes at the forefront of the change and has their best interests in mind. Additionally, greater accountability needs to be held by the teams and organizations that have been informed of these incidents to ensure that new protocols and standards are set and met. The industry cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these incidents, and great efforts need to be made to try and prevent sexual harassment from happening in the future.

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