On Saturday, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero plunged the sports-world into a debate it has proven repeatedly it’s not ready to handle. The incident took place in the first half of City’s game with Arsenal, as Aguero argued a throw-in awarded to Arsenal with lineswoman Sian Massey-Ellis.
The first instinct is to see this as pretty innocuous. The idea that players don’t touch male referees all the time is plainly wrong. Frequently players will drape an arm over the shoulder of a ref to try and talk their way out of a yellow card or to show understanding for a given call.
Rarely is much made of it.
By rule, Aguero going unpunished for this makes sense, as what was done was not in a threatening or aggressive manner. That’s the grounds for disciplining a player for touching a referee.
And yet...isn’t it? It’s perhaps not aggressive and threatening in the ways we think of on the field. But the parameters are different here. This is the kind of subtle action pretty much everyone one of us has seen in the workplace or out socially. Aguero isn’t coming on to Massey-Ellis or anything like it, but there is a sense of familiarity or comfort that he would not have with a male referee that isn’t necessarily felt the same way by Massey-Ellis (Premier League refs don’t speak to the press and Massey-Ellis has yet to comment). It’s not intimidation, nor is Aguero doing his “Wild and Crazy Guys” impression here, but there is an element of “Seriously, baby.”
It’s too chummy, and putting your hand casually on a woman, even with the most benign intentions, means something entirely different than doing so on a man. Even if it’s the lowest possible suggestion of something untoward, it’s there. The dynamics at work are just different, and at the end of the day, undermine Massey-Ellis’s authority.
The problem in the discourse afterwards is it’s always men talking about whether or not it was appropriate, so perhaps it’s best to leave it to one of the leading voices of those who cover the sport, who’s also a woman, in Rebecca Lowe.
To hope that soccer as a whole can amend their rules to account for this sort of thing is somewhere in the same neighborhood of hoping to see the Easter Bunny. FIFA and the Premier League have a history of making just about anything worse. Still, it’s a question for more than just soccer, with female officials in the NBA and now their ranks increasing in the NFL as well.
It’s likely you’ll see some decry the ideas of different rules for male officials and female ones, but that’s pretty much the deal given the different forces at work.
Aguero almost certainly had no ill-intentions, but it isn’t the intention that matters. It’s the impact, the actions. Even on just an optics-level it’s bad, and the Premier League should probably address it going forward so there isn’t a repeat down the line.