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Dele Alli abuse revelations highlight how professional footballers suffer greater mental health risk

Dele Alli

Everton footballer Dele Alli released an emotional interview with pundit and former player Gary Neville, on July 13. The video was a poignant reminder of the difficult upbringings experienced by many professional footballers and the long-term impact on their mental health, both within and outside of the sport.

Dele (who has distanced himself from his surname) discussed a range of shocking experiences including being a victim of sexual abuse, dealing drugs at the age of eight, and being hung off a bridge by an adult at the age of 11. Unsurprisingly, Dele shared that this trauma has had a significant effect on his mental health, including an addiction to sleeping tablets.

Alongside this, Dele has faced significant issues within football in recent years. This meant he went from being seen as one of the most talented young players of his generation to reconsidering his future in the game at just 24 years old.

These revelations are an important reminder to everyone connected with football – from clubs, coaches and players, though to fans and the media – of the vulnerability of some of the most high-profile people within the sport and the risks they face in terms of exploitation.

Abuse and trauma

The most shocking headline from Dele’s interview was his disclosure of being sexually abused at six years old. Speaking to The Sun, Dele’s biological mother has denied knowing about the childhood abuse he experienced.

While there have been encouraging advances in understanding sexual abuse of boys in sport, studies have focused on different forms of maltreatment that have occurred within this environment. This does not account for the experiences of sportspeople either before they enter the game, or when they are at home.

Given the established barriers to reporting sexual abuse for men and the challenges footballers face when whistleblowing, the potential effects on the mental health and vulnerability of players are stark.

Dele highlighted the impact of the trauma of his childhood on his mental health and subsequent addiction to sleeping tablets. This reemphasizes the vulnerable nature of many professional footballers’ mental health. Common mental disorders (such as distress, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, and adverse alcohol use) are experienced more frequently by footballers than in the general population.

When coupled with findings that suggest professional footballers suppress their emotions to conform to the masculine culture of the sport, there is significant concern for players’ well-being.

The scale of Dele’s trauma explains why he might have sought refuge in sleeping pills. As his interview highlighted, those who provide these tablets illegitimately can take advantage of vulnerable players.

Football’s response to these issues

Dele’s interview has reinforced the need for education to encourage players to seek help. His revelations also highlight the need for professional football clubs to be mindful of the experiences of players as they join their academies and to consider that maltreatment of these individuals may occur within the game.

Dele revealed that he had doubts about his career when he was dropped by then-Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho. This shows the impact of the fear of rejection. For players coming from difficult upbringings, this could become even more of an issue for their mental health and well-being. Clubs need to be aware of how these players may be affected by things which may normally be perceived as “part of the game”.

As Dele’s interview shows, professional footballers should be considered an “at-risk” group for being maltreated, particularly in relation to exploitation from other people within football and the media. Therefore, those within the game need to consider the risks in relation to aspects of the sport such as player loans, where footballers may be placed in unfamiliar environments, as well as the broader culture of the sport where reporting wrongdoing can be challenging.


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