A Shocking Soccer Kiss Demonstrates the Power of Scandal

After Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s soccer federation, forcibly kissed Jennifer Hermoso, a player on the national women’s team, in the wake of their World Cup win, many wondered whether it would be a #MeToo moment for Spain.

Whether the televised kiss galvanizes a lasting movement against harassment and discrimination is yet to be seen. But the growing backlash against Rubiales highlights an often-crucial element of such public reckonings: scandal.

During periods of social change, there is often a phase of widespread support for an overhaul in principle but a reluctance within the population to actually make those ideals a reality. Changing a system means taking on the powerful insiders who benefit from it and bearing the brunt of their retaliation — a hard sell, particularly for those who do not expect the change to help them personally.

A scandal can change that calculus profoundly, as illustrated by the furor surrounding the kiss. Hermoso described it as “an impulse-driven, sexist, out-of-place act without any consent on my part.” (Rubiales, who has refused to resign, has forcefully defended his conduct and insisted that the kiss was consensual.)

By generating public outrage, scandals make inaction costly: suddenly, doing nothing risks an even greater backlash. And scandals can alter the other side of the equation, too: the powerful have less ability to retaliate if their erstwhile allies abandon them in order to avoid being tainted by the scandal themselves. Action becomes less costly at the same time that inaction becomes more so.

But although scandals can be a mighty tool, they are not available to everyone. Just as the growing backlash against Rubiales has shown the power of scandal, the events of the months leading up to it, in which many members of the Spanish women’s team tried without success to change a system they described as controlling and outdated, underline how difficult it can be to spark a scandal — and how that can leave ordinary people excluded from public sympathy or the ability to enact change.

The unifying power of scandal

To see how this pattern plays out, it’s helpful to look at the influence of scandal in a very different context. Yanilda González, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, researches police reform in the Americas. In the 2010s, she set out to determine why, after Latin American dictatorships ended, democratic reforms often exempted police forces, leaving them as islands of authoritarianism.

In her resulting 2020 book, “Authoritarian Police in Democracy,” she describes how police forces can be extremely powerful in political terms, sometimes using the threat of public disorder as leverage over policymakers who might seek to limit their power or threaten their privileges.

Politicians were reluctant to incur the costs of pursuing reforms that might provoke a backlash from police. And public opinion was often divided: while some demanded greater protections from state violence, others worried that police reforms would empower criminals.

But, González found, scandals could change that. Episodes of particularly egregious police misconduct could unite public opinion in demanding reform. Opposition politicians, seeing an opportunity to win votes from an angry public, would add to the chorus, and eventually the government would decide that change was the least costly option.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal followed a similar pattern. For many years, Weinstein’s predatory behavior was an open secret in Hollywood. But then a Times article by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, in which multiple women detailed the abuses they had suffered at his hands, generated a massive scandal. The public outrage at Weinstein’s behavior meant that the old Hollywood calculus, in which it was safer to keep quiet about the powerful producer’s abuses than to try to stop them, no longer applied. Weinstein’s former allies abandoned him.

That generated pressure for change that went far beyond Weinstein. A slew of other #MeToo scandals exposed powerful men as abusers, harassers, and general sex pests. A national reckoning followed.

‘The kiss’ shows scandal’s power — but also its limitations

Long before the televised kiss, many members of the Spanish women’s team had lodged protests against Rubiales and the Spanish football association’s leadership. Last year, 15 members of the team, frustrated by unequal pay and general sexism, sent identical letters accusing the team’s coach, Jorge Vilda, of using methods damaging to “their emotional state and their health,” and saying they would not play for the national team unless he was fired.

Those 15 women were some of the team’s best players. They were organized. And they were willing to sacrifice a World Cup appearance to achieve change.

But they were not yet “Queens of the World,” as one magazine cover proclaimed them last week, with a World Cup win that would put them on the front page of every newspaper in the country.

And they didn’t yet have a scandal. No single event had generated sufficient public outrage to shift power from the football association to the players. The Spanish football association, including Rubiales, reacted with outrage to the letters, and vowed to not only protect Vilda’s job, but to keep the writers off the national team unless they “accept their mistake and apologize.”

Though there is no precise formula, to capture public attention a scandal often needs to involve an exceptionally sympathetic victim, as well as shocking allegations of misconduct. Kate Manne, a philosophy professor at Cornell and the author of two books on structural misogyny, has written about how some people will instinctively align themselves with the status quo, sympathizing with powerful men accused of sexual violence or other wrongdoing rather than their victims — a tendency she calls “himpathy.” To overcome that instinct, she said, victims often have to be particularly compelling, such as the famous actresses who came forward about Weinstein’s abuses.

Of course, most victims of harassment and assault are not famous actresses, or queens of the world. Manne noted that Tarana Burke, the activist who founded the #MeToo movement, spent years trying to bring attention to the abuse of less privileged women before high-profile scandals galvanized global attention. “She was trying to draw attention to the plight of the Black and brown girls who can be victimized in ways that don’t ever scandalize anyone,” Manne said.

Public outrage has tended to be reserved for high-profile victims. But if norms shift more broadly against abuse and impunity, there can be positive change for ordinary people as well. Famous actresses may have focused public anger on Weinstein, but the #MeToo movement also brought attention to abuses of some less-famous workers, such as restaurant staff.

Once the machinery of scandal does kick in, the consequences can be significant. As my Times colleagues Jason Horowitz and Rachel Chaundler report, many Spanish women saw Rubiales’ action as an example of a macho, sexist culture that allows men to subject them to aggression and violence without consequence.

As public anger grew, politicians weighed in on behalf of the players. Late Friday night, the entire team and dozens of other players issued a joint statement saying that they would not play for Spain “if the current managers continue.” The next day, members of Vilda’s coaching staff resigned en masse.

On Monday, Spanish prosecutors announced an investigation into whether Rubiales might have committed criminal sexual aggression. The same day, the Royal Spanish Football Association, which Rubiales currently leads, called on him to resign.

The question now is not just whether he will be fired or step down, but if the broader outrage will lead to real change in Spain. “When we have these women who are, you know, figuratively and literally on top of the world in professional sports — and it’s captured live on video — then we have the makings of a scandal,” Manne said. It is too soon to tell where that might lead.

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