In what should have been a moment of celebration and recognition, an unfortunate incident unfolded during Manchester United's end-of-season awards ceremony.
Alessia Russo, the talented striker who led England to the Euros last summer and spearheaded the formidable United attack this season, was receiving the prestigious Women's Player of the Year trophy when the chief executive of Manchester United Foundation, John Shiels, made an ill-judged comment about its weight. The repercussions of his words were immediate, as the incident quickly spread on social media, drawing widespread criticism.
Second hand embarrassment from this.
Alessia looks so uncomfortable & embarrassed. Unfortunately still people out there who treat female athletes differently🤦🏻♂️
Such an unnecessary comment to make. #MUWomen pic.twitter.com/nw5MWGfOfX
— Conner Roberts (@ConnerRoberts_) May 29, 2023
Yeppp🙃 Thought Alessia handled it very well considering...
— Conner Roberts (@ConnerRoberts_) May 30, 2023
As Russo stood on the stage, basking in the applause of the audience, Shiels, in an attempt at humour, declared, "I'm not going to give this trophy to Alessia because it's so heavy."
The room fell momentarily silent, and Sky Sports reporter Geoff Shreeves, the master of ceremonies, swiftly interjected, asking Russo, "I'm sure you can take it quite happily, can't you?" The crowd responded with applause, attempting to ease the tension that had settled over the stage.
Shiels, seemingly realising the misstep he had taken, passed the trophy to Russo, and Shreeves lightened the atmosphere further with a wry comment: "John, I think you need to take up more weight training... it's not that heavy." The comment elicited further applause, but the damage had already been done.
Social media ignited with criticism and condemnation for Shiels, leaving the incident to overshadow the significant achievements of Russo and the women's team throughout the season.
these are our players… we should be protecting them not adding to the misogyny and sexist comments that they already have to live with 🤦🏻♀️
— kaz (@kazfootie) May 29, 2023
Alessia Russo had showcased her immense talent and prowess on the football field throughout the campaign, scoring an impressive tally of 10 goals in 20 Women's Super League (WSL) games. Her contributions were instrumental in Manchester United's successful season, as they finished agonizingly close to the top, securing a second-place finish in both the league and the FA Cup. Russo's winning goal, a stoppage-time header against Arsenal, etched her name in the history books and secured a thrilling 3-2 victory in front of more than 40,000 fervent fans at the Emirates Stadium in November.
While the comment was certainly not made with any malicious intent, it does highlight the importance of language and removing the underlying sexist and misogynistic tone that still prevails to this day. The incident exposed a lack of sensitivity and awareness from Shiels, who serves as the chief executive of Manchester United Foundation, the charitable arm of the club.
Realizing the gravity of his words and the offense caused, Shiels took to Twitter the following day to issue a public apology.
In his statement, he expressed his mortification at the offense caused and extended his sincere apologies to Russo, her teammates, and anyone else affected by his comment. He clarified that his intention was not to belittle or demean Russo but to prevent her from dropping the trophy due to its unexpectedly heavy weight. Shiels admitted that, upon reflection, he understood why his comment could be misconstrued and acknowledged the distraction it created from the remarkable achievements of Russo and the women's team.
Why is this important? Watch this.
ᴄʜᴀɴɢᴇ ᴛʜᴇ ꜱᴛᴀᴛᴜꜱ Qᴜᴏ
Girls as young as FIVE don’t feel like they belong in sport.
From an Irish context - did you know that Irish girls have amongst the lowest levels of self-esteem globally?
🎥: Women In Sport UK#HerSport pic.twitter.com/cGMCOwA1Pw
— Her Sport (@HerSportDotIE) May 27, 2023