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Misunderstood, Misjudged, and Mislabeled: What Dele Alli’s Story Teaches Us

F*cking lazy,' commented José Mourinho, a previous Tottenham Spurs manager, as he walked past Dele Alli in a training session filmed by Amazon for the 2020 All or Nothing documentary series. This comment swiftly turned into a convenient label media and fans enthusiastically latched on to, one that Dele has been unable to disassociate from ever since.


‘People always love to bring that up,’ Dele noted in his recent interview with Gary Neville, which has quickly gone viral for uncovering the real factors that underlie Dele’s decline, a period that saw, to many supporters, a disappointing and unredeemable downturn in performance and character. This 45-minute video reveals that in the place of alleged laziness stood childhood trauma, mental health, and addiction.


Dele was once considered one of Britain’s most promising young footballers. Among his rapid succession of early achievements were overtaking Cristiano Ronaldo in the number of goals and assists executed before 22, and winning the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year award for two seasons in a row. The initial trajectory of his progression had naturally amassed watchful gazes from within the game and the fandom alike, anticipating every next breakthrough this young genius from Milton Keynes was going to surprise the world with.


Yet, his rapid rise to the top was followed by a similarly abrupt decline. Another infamous label attached to the footballer’s reputation is ‘party boy,’ as he is repeatedly captured on nights out partying into the early hours of the day. Media and fans take turns hypothesizing, explaining and capitalizing on Dele’s ‘fall from grace’, attributing it to disciplinary issues, a bad attitude, and a poor work ethic.


In the interview, Neville and Dele also discuss how professional footballers are often highly sceptical of the media due to the dissemination of false information and deliberate distortions of the truth for ‘clickbait.’ Dele reveals that not only has he ‘read so many stories about [himself] that are not true at all,’ which is an experience that is far from uncommon for any public figure, but also, that though Mourinho had apologized to Dele soon after the viral incident, Amazon had chosen not to include the apology in the documentary.


The staggering disparity between perceptions of Dele perpetuated by the media and his lived reality brings attention to the need for more work to be done around fostering a healthier relationship between the media and professional athletes. As an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine contends, ‘Similar to safeguards after physical injuries, we need to advocate for protecting athlete mental health in the timing and appropriateness of media interaction,’ also highlighting policy reviews and implicit bias training for all who interact with athletes as other potential steps forward. 


However, perhaps the most significant themes Dele’s story spotlights are mental health education and awareness. Though progress has been made through initiatives such as the England Football Association’s Heads Up project, there is still an unmistakable stigma and ample misconceptions surrounding mental health within the professional sporting realm. This is first and foremost evidenced by how easily everyone latched onto the laziness comment as fact.


Students who underperform or struggle in school due to lack of effort are often similarly labelled as ‘lazy,’ but as social psychologist Dr Devon Price argues, ‘If you look at a person’s action (or inaction) and see only laziness, you are missing key details.’ This comes from his book Laziness Does Not Exist, which was born out of his viral blog post ‘Laziness Does Not Exist, But unseen barriers do.’


Laziness can be a reductive label, one that is too easily misused and can dangerously obstruct the complex, inconspicuous factors and barriers that are hindering 'lazy' students from achieving their full potential. Although the 27-year-old is now far from his schooling days, this notion rings true regardless, as his courageous display of vulnerability debunks the misconceptions that have plagued all Google searches of ‘Dele Alli’ for the past several years.


For students, these barriers can range from ineffective curricula and pedagogy to mental health, neurodiversity, family issues, systemic injustices and much more. For Dele, these barriers were all the aftereffects on his mental health that rippled from unprocessed adverse childhood experiences like being molested at 6, starting smoking at 7, being coerced into dealing drugs at 8, being hung off a bridge at 11, and growing up with an alcoholic single mother.


Unfortunately, the mentality that Dr Price describes seems to remain prevalent in the field of professional football. One study even found that some coaches assume psychological attributes ‘to be simply less trainable than other aspects of the athlete.’ This pessimistic perception and approach to player mentality, which is inextricably linked to mental health, potentially could have contributed to the misjudgement of Dele’s internal struggles. This becomes a potent reminder that increasing mental health literacy in the athlete and coach community is essential for the stigma to be overcome. 


Though there has been a significant amount of support and praise coming from fans upon the revelation of certain heart-wrenching details about his difficult childhood, a quick scroll through online comment sections under the interview and other articles will reveal the significant minority of people that believe he's just 'playing the mental health card', dismissing his confessions as a 'PR stunt.'


A systematic review reveals that stigma was the most commonly reported barrier to seeking mental health treatment among professional athletes. Coupled with the finding that boys are less likely to vocalize the impact adverse childhood experiences have had on them, this further reinforces the importance of destigmatizing the matter within men’s football, so that players with similar experiences as Dele won’t have to, like Dele says, wait until ‘a time where I couldn’t do it by myself anymore.’


Although the same review has shown that professional athletes report more stigma to mental health treatment-seeking than the general population, it is also important to recognize that this is not an isolated case of neglect for mental health. Unfortunately, this is a story that has stemmed from a lack of support from institutions and a lack of understanding of mental health in the wider culture. The responsibility falls on everyone to educate themselves and contribute towards building a world in which anyone that struggles with mental health is safe and is given an equal opportunity to fulfil their full potential. 




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Tags: #mentalhealth #football #premierleague #delealli

1 comment

4 months, 1 week ago by marvintong726

Fantastically written article, this piece of writing really encapsulates the hostility and crux of sports culture in UK. I’m definitely looking forwards to more articles from this writer !

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