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If you really want to, you can see the instantly infamous moment as a veteran player pleading his case to an assistant referee. That by registering his dissatisfaction with the call, believing that the ball had really gone out of bounds off another player and not him, he hoped that he might influence the next call. In so doing, he may have touched the assistant referee. But that isn’t so unusual. It was routine. Just another interaction. Unremarkable.
Or you might see those few seconds toward the end of the first half in Manchester City’s 1-0 win over Arsenal on Saturday differently. Namely, as a male player grabbing the rare female assistant referee by the shoulder, or even the base of her neck, pulling her toward him as he delivered his message. The most generous descriptor for the incident between City striker Sergio Aguero and Sian Massey-Ellis was that it looked unfriendly. Perhaps even aggressive. And either way, it was just that: an incident.
Massey-Ellis swatted Arguero’s arm away. Referee Chris Kavanagh took no action. The game went on.
But the moment quickly went viral. And in it, you could see what you want to see, like so many things in sports. It became an unintended Rorschach test on gender dynamics in elite men’s soccer.
One side will see the ensuing hubbub as an overreaction, a regular occurrence blown out of all proportion, of an attempt to white-knight a scandal into being. The other sees yet another sign that the patriarchy is not nearly dead yet in soccer. That women are still treated differently, and subject to different treatment. As they see it, nothing was learned from the 2011 Sky Sports furor, when prominent English soccer presenters Richard Keys and Andy Gray were recorded, outside of a broadcast, criticizing Massey-Ellis’s pioneering presence in the Premier League and deriding her knowledge of the game. The pair was subsequently fired by Sky.
And Match of the Day, the influential Premier League recap show in the United Kingdom, saw something problematic as well. Pundits and former EPL strikers Alan Shearer and Ian Wright were quick and uninhibited in condemning Aguero.
“It just wasn’t a good look, was it?” Shearer said, per The Guardian. “He shouldn’t do it.”
“What was that?” Wright echoed. “Unnecessary, unnecessarily patronizing. It felt really awkward.”
On the other hand, Aguero’s manager, Pep Guardiola, downplayed it as a non-issue. “Come on, guys,” he said after the game. “Sergio is the nicest person I ever met in my life. Look for problems in other situations, not in this one.”
Guardiola has previously proven tone-deaf in matters concerning his team that don’t strictly relate to soccer. When one of his white players, Bernardo Silva, sent a plainly racist tweet to one of his black players, Benjamin Mendy, albeit in jest, Guardiola declared that no racism could have taken place because it was a joke. “Benjamin is like a brother to Bernardo,” Guardiola proclaimed then. “That is what I see every single day here.” Silva was suspended for a game regardless.
The committee charged with ruling whether Aguero grabbing Massey-Ellis merits punishment — he didn’t so much as get a yellow card for it in the game — doesn’t seem to take issue either. The Professional Game Match Officials Limited, which oversees the referees, has reportedly not deemed Aguero’s actions aggressive or threatening, the benchmark for a suspension or fine.
Massey-Ellis has not commented, nor would you expect a match official to in a situation such as this one. So there’s no telling how she feels about it. You can’t really blame her for not speaking out. It’s hard enough being a female assistant referee without inadvertently rebranding yourself as That Assistant Referee From The Aguero Thing. But the fact that Massey-Ellis batted Aguero’s arm away and refused to engage with him suggests it didn’t read as an innocent interaction to her.
You can parse what would have made it aggressive or threatening, but that misses the point. Aguero felt entitled and empowered to touch her in this fashion. And had this happened between Aguero and a male linesman — as they were called until not all that long ago, which is telling in its own right – there would be no discussion to be had, but then the question is whether the Argentine striker would have put his hands on a man like that at all.
This is probably no cancel-able offense. Aguero hasn’t done anything in his long public life that should deny him the benefit of the doubt. But then it would help if Aguero or Guardiola acknowledged that the moment was, at a minimum, inappropriate. Perhaps they might even learn something from it, grow in some way.
Because after this, there is no longer any excuse not to know better. Men’s soccer is no longer the exclusive domain of men.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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