A referee who shared intimate photos of women rugby players is back officiating in the same venues that his alleged victims were competing in after being suspended for just 30 days.
Women playing for rugby teams across Brazil told VICE World News they were disgusted by the short suspension given to the referee, who we are not naming in order to protect their identities.
Earlier this year a complaint was brought to the Brazilian Rugby Confederation claiming that the referee had shared intimate photographs of players he had obtained through consensual sexting to WhatsApp groups. This was in addition to taking a selfie of himself and a woman wearing a bikini in her home while her back was turned. None of the women had consented to their images being shared beyond their private conversations.
After an investigation led to him being suspended for 30 days, he was able to perform his duties again – and rugby players in Brazil have said that he has been allowed to referee in the same spaces where the women involved have also been playing in rugby 7s matches. The referee has not been identified, as the confederation said internal investigations are treated “confidentially.”
VICE World News spoke to members of the University of São Paulo’s women’s rugby team, who have started a petition to force further action including a tougher penalty for the referee. They agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity for fear it could harm them professionally.
“I’ve seen a lot of gender issues going on, but nothing like this current case which is getting bigger and bigger because our Confederation has ignored it and set a very light punishment for such a crime” said one player. “It makes me very uncomfortable that they didn’t immediately bring it to the police,” she added, referring to the original complaint formally made six months ago. The complaint was in fact never taken to the police.
All of the alleged victims involved are a mixture of professional, semi-pro and amateur players across Brazilian rugby. The player added that they believe there could be as many as eight women involved if not more, and that the referee continues to be able to officiate male and female matches, often Rugby 7s, as well as being involved in extra-field activity. “There is no proof that the Confederation is keeping him away from matches of any form, including those in which his victims are going to play,” she said.
While football is Brazil’s most popular sport, at least 60,000 Brazilians play rugby and interest in the sport is growing. The first women’s rugby match took place in 1987.
The US-based Wilson Centre, a non-partisan foreign policy forum, describes the status of women in Brazil as “emblematic of the country’s internal tensions,” where strides for gender equality are met with one of the highest rates of femicide in the world . Their far right president Jair Bolsonaro, whose displays of misogyny once featured telling a fellow lawmaker she was “too ugly to be raped”, is currently struggling to win the support of over half of Brazil’s female population.
The USP petition, which now has 1,500 signatures, reads: “A referee who shares intimate photos of women cannot be tolerated, crosses all lines of what should be accepted on and off the field. In the midst of this are the athletes – who shouldn’t have to submit to the uncomfortable and embarrassing presence of someone who caused and causes a lot of pain and suffering off the field.”
Sharing images or video that features sex, nudity or pornography “without the victim’s consent” has been a crime in Brazil since 2018. The same legal code lists the punishment as imprisonment for one to five years.
Two of the alleged victims, both of whom wish to remain anonymous to protect their privacy, told VICE World News that the response from the Confederation had been extremely disappointing.
“Nothing other than pathetic,” was how one described it, who said she and the referee had texted in an intimate way years earlier in 2018, “but I cannot say I was surprised. I would like him to be held accountable for his actions – to never be able to referee in a rugby match again or even teach classes on how to be a referee. After all, he’s harmed one of the pillars of rugby: respect. I’d like to see him pay legally. And I expect from the confederation a drastic change in policies.”
She added that as she had been abroad and was still in the process of seeking legal advice she had not brought her case to the police, but is now intending on doing so.
Another alleged victim said she hopes to get the police involved if more women are happy to share their story. The referee had been working with her team during quarantine periods in Brazil over the pandemic, and one day she claims that when some of the team were staying at her house and were wearing bikinis it took the opportunity “to take a picture of my ass and send it to a group of referees from Brazil in a kind of way of talking about my body and without my awareness.”
She continued: “I would really like him to stay away from women’s rugby at least for a while so he understands that for him to be able to return to women’s rugby, he needs to give everybody time to see that he’s changed, to see that he’s a different person and also give him time to show that what he did he really regrets.”
The players on the University of São Paulo’s team who VICE World News spoke to claimed that there are several more women who the referee shared images of, who all come from different rugby teams across the country, including the national team. But she added that not all of them are confidently coming forward. “There are some girls who get their incomes from rugby from poor, conservative families,” a team member said. “So maybe they feel like their personal lives would be damaged if their family found out.”
When asked whether they had contacted police about the incident, the Brazilian Rugby Confederation told VICE World News: “According to the Ombudsman, the images, even though they had an intimate nature, did not have explicit nudity nor identification of the person (no faces were shown).”
They said that they suspended the individual for a 30-day period because Brazilian labor laws determine that “the employee can only be suspended for a maximum period of 30 days”.
Members of the USP rugby team however told VICE World News that the women were identifiable. Whenever he would share the pictures, he would say which team the girl played for. He would also relate this to the rugby community,” one of them said.
She said that the Confederation’s response was “misinterpreting the law in a way that is ignoring completely the concept of it.”
She added: “In those pictures you can actually identify them – even through their physical characteristics, descriptions that he makes and backgrounds.
“Since these girls are in an intimate conversation with this man, the conversation is a private, non-authorized spread to others and extremely harmful to their rights, especially when it comes to their dignity and consent.
“If he’d stolen a wallet, he’d be in more trouble.”