In April 2017, German newsmagazine Der Spiegel reported that Cristiano Ronaldo in 2010 reached a $375,000 settlement with a woman who said he raped her in a Las Vegas hotel in 2009. The story barely made a ripple in the sports world, even after Der Spiegel followed up the initial story a week later by reporting on the existence of text messages that suggest Ronaldo, who has denied the accusations, knew about the settlement.
Fast forward a year and a half, past dozens of powerful men who have been held accountable for their actions amid the Me Too movement, past Stormy Daniels challenging the validity of her settlement and nondisclosure agreement with President Trump, and past thousands of other women who have spoken out, in ways big and small, about their own sexual assaults, to Der Spiegel’s latest story: The woman who accused Ronaldo of rape, Kathryn Mayorga, speaking on the record about that night in 2009 and its aftermath.
That story, published one week ago, had an effect Der Spiegel’s previous reports did not. It’s reverberated beyond sports media into mainstream press, including the Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America, the BBC, and practically everywhere else. The global coverage prompted the Las Vegas police department to reopen the rape investigation; Ronaldo’s sponsor Nike to release a statement saying they were “deeply concerned by the disturbing allegations”; and Ronaldo’s current team, Juventus, to double down on support for their star.
I spoke to one of the Der Spiegel journalists, Antje Windmann, who—along with sports reporters Rafael Buschmann and Christoph Winterbach, and a team of others—has covered this story from the beginning. She described what it was like to break the story, the challenges of reporting it out, and what the response has been like. If you haven’t yet, take the time to read Der Spiegel’s latest story about the allegations.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity:
Deadspin: You first received the documents about this case in Football Leaks [Ed note: A website that has been described as Wikileaks for soccer]. Can you tell me anything about what the material was and specifically when you received it?
Antje Windmann: We received the documents more than one and a half years ago. I really cannot point out any single documents, but what we found were pieces of the puzzle. So, telling us that there was a night in 2009 in Vegas where a woman is claiming that Ronaldo allegedly raped her. But this was just the first step. The whole story was not just told by these documents.
DS: When you received the documents did you realize right away that what you had was going to be a serious story? What was your reaction when you first saw it?
AW: We were all critical and we were discussing it a lot. Because, as you know, it’s a big investment of time and energy. You make your decisions and say, “Hey is this worth proceeding with research” or is it something where you can most likely tell that nothing is going to come out of it. But in this case, we all—and we are a team of reporters and fact checkers and the legal department—we all decided, yes, we have to proceed with this.
DS: How was the story assigned?
AW: We are a quite big publishing company so we have a lot of colleagues and we really are lucky that we have great work conditions. We always have the trust of our bosses and we still have, fortunately, the resources to really go out and do research. In that case, there’s a team who’s working a lot with these Football Leaks documents, and they were thinking about who could join the team for the story. It’s not a decision from the top to the bottom. It’s more that we were discussing it. So at a very early stage, I came in and was asked if I wanted to participate in that story and take over pretty much the part that was to reach out to [Mayorga] to see how we could fill out the story on the American side.
DS: Why do you think you were approached for that part of the participation? Did you and your team think it was important from the very outset to have a woman doing this part of the reporting?
AW: I think in general it makes sense in reporting about sexual assault to have a woman involved. Because what you want is to have people open up in interviews and talk about their inner feelings. And in this case, to also discuss the alleged trauma. I think this interview situation has a better foundation when it’s a woman doing the interview. But also I am very experienced in interviewing people with trauma, [who have experienced] sexual assault, and have PTSD. And the team was also looking for someone who was going to write this piece down in the end. So I had some characteristics that were needed.
DS: Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
AW: I recently switched to the sports department, in November of last year. Before that I was in what we call the Germany section, and I was more in social politics. I was reporting stories about the people, so finding cases which illustrate, for example, bigger themes or topics. I covered a lot of crime, too, a lot of sexual assault and abuse, and then I found after all these years, more than seven years, I wanted a change and wanted to do something different. The boss of the sports department asked me, “Hey, why don’t you join the sports team?” And I said, “Yes, that’s a nice joke.” Because I don’t really have much knowledge about sports. I like to watch soccer and I have some rough knowledge when it comes to other sports but I would say I’m not expert enough to, for example, analyze how Bayern Munich performed against Borussia Dortmund. But that’s not what they wanted. They wanted me to keep on doing what I did and to write the profiles about big sports stars and interview them. So since then I did a couple of stories, for example, about a famous German soccer player [Ed note: Per Mertesacker] who talks about the pressure of being out there on the field and dealing with it.
DS: After the documents you got through Football Leaks, did you accrue more documents from other sources or did the rest of the reporting involve talking to people and asking people for comment?
AW: In the end we have different documents from different sources. So it’s not just based on the Football Leaks documents, no. When we were certain that we had enough information, that we could begin to see if the reality fits to what the papers told us, then we went out and started talking to people.
DS: As you reported this story, were you concerned about keeping your reporting secret and kind of under wraps, either to keep competitors in the dark or to not tip your hand to Ronaldo’s lawyers before you were ready?
AW: We usually work very carefully, I would say, whenever it comes to a story which has investigative potential. We dealt with it like we deal with other stories, too. So of course we knew it was not a story where you go out in the evening, for example, and talk to your friends about it.
And also: It was the nature of the case that there were just a few people, like two handfuls of people, who knew about what allegedly happened back then. And they had all agreed not to talk about it. So I would say that the risk that other journalists would discover the incident now was pretty small.
DS: So you’ve got to the point where you were going to go meet with Kathryn Mayorga. You said that she ran away from you on the doorstep, and that struck me as a very dramatic scene in the reporting. I was wondering if you could describe that to me a little bit.
AW: What happened first is that I tried to contact her over the phone and then when she understood that I was a journalist and that I was asking questions, she just hung up. I think she said “no comment” and hung up. Then we tried to locate her, not to chase her down, but for good-quality reporting you try everything to get in touch with people who might be able to correct what you found out. And we also, of course, wanted to have an impression of her because these are massive accusations where you can severely harm someone by reporting it. And then we found out where she lived and waited and actually we met her on the street. We saw her on the street and I approached her. I think she directly realized—that’s my interpretation now—that I was the one from the phone. I couldn’t even say much, she just took off and ran away.
DS: And so what was the next step in trying to talk to her at that point?
AW: For a long time, nothing. What happened next was, I think, it was a process which took many months. Because we published like three articles, and she was concerned—this is what she’s telling us now retroactively—that the Ronaldo side could think that she was the one leaking the information to us. So what she did was she got a new lawyer [Ed note: Leslie Mark Stovall]. And this lawyer really looked into everything and questioned the contract she signed in 2010. So he’s saying now that it’s void for a couple reasons. And with this legal evaluation, I think that was the groundwork for her, in her processing, to say, “Hey, if there’s no contract then there’s no nondisclosure. So I can talk.” And that’s what took however many months. And then I got in touch with her new lawyer and he asked me if I wanted to come to his office and sit down and talk with him about this case.
DS: What was your impression of her lawyer? I was looking through some of his history—I know that you mentioned in the story that was disbarred for two years for filing a false tax return in 2001—but the rest of his background is interesting. He got his degree from the University of the Pacific, which is a school I had never even heard of, and it seems like he doesn’t have much experience with complex international cases dealing with nondisclosure agreements. What did you make of him?
AW: Yes, I would agree you would expect a bigger name or bigger law firm. But my impression is—although I am not knowledgable in American and Nevada law—he knows what he is doing and my impression is also that he is fearless. And also, the documentation doesn’t seem to be bad.
DS: I think the parallels between this case and Stormy Daniels’s case regarding her nondisclosure agreement and settlement with President Trump are striking. Two of the most powerful men in their respective fields both have a similar type of settlement, the main difference being that Daniels says the sex was consensual. The lawyers in those two cases are obviously very different (Daniels is represented by Michael Avenatti) but like you said, maybe his fearlessness is what counts.
AW: And I think he’s experienced enough to handle it. That’s my impression.
I think you also have to see the circumstances. I mean, for her—this is again my interpretation—it was not just important to find a lawyer. I think for her it was also important to find someone she trusts and a person she can relate to because she has a lot of anxiety issues. And maybe this works out better for her than if there would have been this big law firm involved.
DS: It’s so hard to walk that line between pushing alleged sexual assault survivors for information and corroboration and really trying to drill down the details of the story while also being sensitive to the fact that they’re recounting something that they said was deeply traumatic to them. You wrote that her therapist was present for parts of the discussion, but how did you and your team balance this?
AW: First we had something like a warm-up where we met with her and the family and the lawyer the day before the first interview. We introduced the team a little because I think it’s very intimidating to talk about that to the media. And I think that the media is also something where, often in people’s imaginations, we’re some kind of aliens coming in and we’re scary people. And so I like to do that just to show that we’re normal people. We’re coming as journalists but also as people, of course. And so we had a little get together, and then we met for the interview the next day.
We started chatting first because, for us, it was not just important to learn how she experienced that night. We also—and that’s why we wanted to talk to her family and friends—we also wanted to have a better impression of who she is, because she is mainly the source, aside from the documents, for these accusations. And of course we wanted to see what is our feeling for her, do we think she’s credible, the way she tells the story—is there something where we see she said different things on different occasions—so we really challenged her.
But so to answer your questions, it was relatively easy because a lot of times she was bringing up what happened by herself. So we didn’t really have to ask too many questions. I sometimes had the impression that nine years ago someone just pushed the silent button and then she wasn’t allowed to talk about it. And then all of the sudden there were people who wanted to hear what happened and so sometimes it was almost flooding out of her, so that we just had to sit there and listen. I know exactly what you’re talking about [with pushing for information] and I had that a lot of times in the past, but somehow this was different. It was, I think, also different because she knew from our reporting that we knew what allegedly happened. She didn’t have to tell us that she was, what she said, sodomized, because she knew we knew about this part, for example. She knew that she wouldn’t put that out there and have to see [the reactions on] our faces.
DS: Did you go over what she said specifically happened to her physically?
AW: Yes, of course. She had to walk us through it. These are very important details. It was something we had to know.
DS: Did the rape allegation against Cristiano Ronaldo in London in 2005 factor into your reporting? [Ed. note: Ronaldo was arrested and questioned by police but not charged.] I know that Kathryn Mayorga said that part of the reason why she wanted to put her story out there was to see if this had happened to other women. So, did the previous allegation have an affect on your reporting?
AW: Honestly no, because this story is, up to today, very vague to me. For our investigation, we cleared the table. I don’t know what happened back then, but we had nothing in our hands that we could say, “Well you know this is maybe something like what happened in Great Britain.” No. We just looked at this single case.
DS: I can see how that decision, sticking to the facts you had, probably strengthened your reporting because it didn’t introduce an unknown to your story. On the other hand, there was a rape allegation against Ronaldo in the past, which seems relevant. He was brought into police custody and questioned. I was thinking, if this was my story, how would I go about bringing the previous allegation to bear on the story, or if it would cheapen the reporting and facts I had. No real question there, just wanted to sort of walk you through what I was thinking with that part of it.
AW: Let me maybe point out one more thing. So when writing this, when you bring everything home about what you have researched, to me the most important thing was to be balanced in the writing. This is almost impossible when you just have one side talking. I would have loved to sit down and talk with [Ronaldo]. All of us would have liked to listen to his version. But it didn’t happen. So I didn’t want to put in things where I had no substance, to make this story apparently stronger. There might be assumptions that he did something in the past and that would have been—I would have had to moderate things or make up the readers mind for them. As it is, it is almost free of interpretation, I think that’s what I hope I achieved. And so that’s why I also didn’t want to put [the 2005 allegation] in. I just wanted to write down exactly what we had about this case.
DS: As you say in the report, a crucial part of this story is the letter that Kathryn Mayorga wrote to Ronaldo about the alleged rape and the effect it had on her, which was supposed to be read to him as part of the settlement agreement. His agency said it wasn’t read to him, but his lawyers in 2009 said it was read to him. This is such a glaring discrepancy in what Ronaldo’s people were telling you, which came across very clearly in the report, and I was wondering how you leveraged that discrepancy to try to get answers or get someone to talk with you?
AW: We sent out lists of questions to the Ronaldo side. These confrontations are required by [German media] law. But also we had other approaches to get in touch with them. I never heard any explanation [about the differences in what his people said about the letter] and it’s something I don’t know.
DS: You said you tried repeatedly to speak to Ronaldo for this story. Could you describe all the avenues you went through to try to get in touch with him?
AW: There were tries to reach him through consultants of his, to place the request to talk to him, but they never landed anywhere and were all declined. So in the end, we just had these confrontations that we had to send out a certain amount of time before publication to give him the option to say something to the accusations or to explain something or to tell his standpoint. We didn’t get any answers. What we got were lawyers writing us a plain denial and telling us not to report it because it’s his privacy.
DS: Did you ever think about just ambushing him at a public appearance or a press conference? That’s something that has been happening more and more in the U.S. with players and coaches who have been accused of wrongdoing or of covering it up.
AW: I think that’s not our style of reporting. That’s not what we would do. What I was surprised by was that after the first reports, he was never questioned on it at a press conference by any other reporter. If I would have read the story in someone else’s magazine or newspaper, I would have asked the question, “Hey what do you say to this report?” But nothing happened. So in some manner, he seems to be—I don’t know if the word quite fits—but, untouchable. Journalists were hesitant asking about it.
I haven’t heard anything about [him being asked about the allegations]. And I think we would have learned if someone would have approached him at a press conference. I think everyone would have written about it.
DS: Was there any pushback at any point to reporting the story internally?
AW: No. They wanted us to be certain about what we had. We were questioned about every fact a lot but it was never in a way that was that’s no story or forget about it, it was more we just need to have the facts straight and be balanced and be objective.
DS: How did you balance the need for thorough fact checking with the need to protect your sources?
AW: We take care of that very well. They’re both priority number one. To have the facts straight but also to protect the source, this is something you can manage. First of all, there is a massive basis of trust among everyone who works in the company. This is not either/or; it works together. And the fact-checking process was massive. They challenged every word and every fact. When we were uncertain about a fact, we took it out.
There was the doubt we had with the questionnaire. [Ed note: Der Spiegel’s reporting showed that Ronaldo’s lawyers had created a list of questions about the incident to be answered by him. There are different versions with different answers to the question of consent.] This is something we had to put in there and moderate. You cannot just take this questionnaire where Ronaldo is apparently saying that Mayorga said “no” and “stop” many times and completely ignore that there’s a later questionnaire where he said it was consensual. So that was a lot of work.
DS: How did your legal team respond to the threats of lawsuits from Ronaldo’s lawyers?
AW: Today I double-checked that before we had this interview, and nothing has happened. After we published nothing has reached us, so there’s nothing to respond to.
DS: Do you think that other outlets or reporters are going to pick up this story more now? Do you have any ideas about why it was ignored or only briefly touched on before your most recent report?
AW: As a matter of fact, now they’ve picked up the story but I have to tell you I think it’s very much due to legal issues. They don’t have the documents we have. So they have nothing in their hands and they cannot just rely on us as a source. In Germany, they’re liable, too, by spreading the story.
DS: Can you describe the responses broadly to the reporting? I’ve seen responses on Twitter and elsewhere primarily calling it lies and supporting Ronaldo. Did you expect this?
AW: Ronaldo has many, many fans. He’s a famous guy. He has over 140 million followers on Instagram. So I didn’t expect his fans to believe right away if she lied or not, but this was never the goal. In the end, we don’t know what happened. We have some documents which cleared away doubts. So having the questionnaire where Ronaldo allegedly said that she said “no” and “stop” several times, that strengthens your back, of course. But still, we cannot say for sure in the end what happened that night. There are just two people who know it, him and her. So we wanted to make readers have their own impression of it.
I was expecting that people would say, Oh come on, she’s lying, she wanted it, he’s famous, he looks good, he doesn’t need to rape a woman, he can have them all, she’s digging for gold or something like this. It is still impressive how widespread these comments are. And something which is shocking to me especially is that there are so many women saying that, too. So I’m not talking about sisterhood or something. No, I want women to have critical thinking. But that was something which I think is deeply irritating.