Dembele, punctuality, professionalism and intent

My mother is late. She is always late. She is so late that if we want her to be somewhere at a given time, we will usually tell her to be there 1-2 hours before the scheduled event. She’s usually still a few minutes late, but better than an hour or so.

It isn’t that she doesn’t love us, or isn’t a wonderful mother. She just can’t get anywhere on time.

Compare that to my experience, and almost falling in love with my wife of 26 years because when I showed up 5 minutes early for a 7:30 p.m. date, she was downstairs, ready. Punctuality and everything about it is different for different people. The problem with that is real life vs play life.

My mother was never late for work, never late for things involving handling her business. This is relevant because a day after a sparkling performance vs Espanyol, Ousmane Dembele was two hours late for training. A day after Messi praised him, said that the team would need him, he was late. Two hours late, and trained by himself.

Predictably, media outlets and journalists are having a field day with this. “AHA! We knew it! Knew his recent improvement as regards punctuality were a lie, knew how he is.” And they rub their hands in glee and begin bashing out things lamenting his “comportment” and “professionalism.” It’s part of a larger picture.

There is no question that Dembele put himself, but more importantly his team and his coach in a complex situation. If Messi is counting on you, that means that he needs you, and you are nuts to derail that over not being able to wake the hell up on time. It means that your coach, because of how these things are usually dealt with on pro teams, won’t be able to call on you for the next match, because of the punishment.

In a broader sense, it makes you wonder, given the necessary punitive aftershocks related to that lack of punctuality, about a player’s future at not just Barça, but any club. Because no coach alive is going to say, “We’ll just start with him when he shows up, everyone.” It doesn’t work like that in the real world.

Dembele either needs a better alarm clock (who among us hasn’t slept through an alarm? I recall having a hour-long dream about a truck backing up, on en andless loop, outside my bedroom window. Oh. Wait.) or to hire someone to, at the appointed time, wake him the hell up. Or maybe there is something else going on.

He has been better about this. We know it because his coach installed him in the XI, and he has rewarded that confidence with some excellent performances. So clearly, he can do it, can show up for training at the correct time, put in the work required, etc. Because if he couldn’t, a traditional-minded hard ass such as Valverde wouldn’t reward him with his trust.

Because we know that he can do everything required, it makes when he can’t an aberration, rather than anything supporting notions about professionalism. Which makes the way he is being treated after this latest incident gross, unseemly and you wonder if people aren’t more willing than they should to cater to stereotypes about lazy, unprofessional black players. There is almost a glee in the breathless reports. “He did it again! We knew it!”

Three different media outlets (and counting) have used the same image of Dembele in their “Late again!” stories: Of him bundled up in training clothes, eyes peeking out from behind a hood. It’s vaguely sinister in that context, and given the blizzard of other images of Dembele that are available, you wonder about the intent. Context makes clear implications, and it is something that media outlets need to be aware of. It can be used to create a visual image surrounding a story, and we see it all the time in global media.

Sometimes, there aren’t other images available, so we see a mass shooter’s college graduation picture, a bright, smiling face peeking out at us from above a chronicle of horror. People ask about the choice, but sometimes choices are limited.

This isn’t the case with Dembele, and it makes you wonder about a larger agenda, makes you wonder about the darker side of motives when it comes to black players, something football still seems to have a problem with. It’s easy to apply a stereotype when one already exists because of worldview. Raheem Sterling spoke about media coverage and how it relates to the way that players are treated, and it’s interesting. Pictures are just one example of choice when people decide how to illustrate a story. With negative stories, outlets will often use the worst image they can find. Might this be why hooded Dembele, with paranoid-looking eyes, black face peering our from behind a dark hood peppering stories about him not doing what he is supposed to. Again.

The coverage echoes that sentiment. “He did it again.” “Another example of unprofessionalism,” and the like. Aspersions are cast via context and word choice and sadly, the clear picture being painted is of a player who doesn’t value being at Barça, doesn’t understand how lucky he is, heard the alarm go off and said, “Screw it. I just scored a badass goal and had a good match. Let them wait while I sleep in.”

And that is a problem. Here is another problem: Nobody has asked, or seems to care, about underlying causes. Did you know that there are many psychologists who believe that anxiety and depression can cause people to sleep more, and more deeply, than they should? Sleep apnea is another potential issue, or insomnia, so you can’t sleep, then when you finally get to sleep, it’s at the wrong time.

Naaaah. He’s playing video games or partying, and can’t be arsed to wake up on time.

Two things can be true. Dembele screwed up by being two hours late, and has a problem with punctuality, AND his situation can be being treated the wrong way by a vulture-like media. Don’t forger that Dembele’s coach called out media outlets for their poor, tabloid-like treatment of his situation.

Did Dembele show up, apologize to the team for letting them down and promise to be better? There is a report that says this is what happened, that he feels bad about it all. But the thrum of the coverage is peppered with somethng approaching glee that makes it seem like folks are almost happy that he screwed up, and that is weird.

You can bet your house on the fact that nobody who has any skin in that game is happy about this incident. Not the player, who will see his playing time curtailed. Not the teammates, who might be wondering whether, with a huge match at stake, they can be assured that a key part of their team won’t be benched because he couldn’t wake up on time. Not the coach, who has to discipline that player, and has to wonder the same thing as that player’s teammates. A board who sanctioned spending 140m on a player is wondering about that investment in a capricious talent. Supporters aren’t happy, because he has been lighting up the pitch and has now put his starting spot in jeopardy.

Some supporters are saying, “He was late, so what?” Others are saying, “It’s unacceptable, he isn’t professional,” etc. Reactions vary. But the way that a story is covered affects those reactions. It’s what press coverage does. And the coverage of Dembele and his punctuality problems, from this seat, is unseemly and leaves the player hard done by. He screwed up. Again. But only vultures find joy at putting the knife in.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.