Ben Simmons and the athlete’s burden


Ben Simmonds was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. Photo: Shinya Suzuki (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The saga of the Australian basketballer illustrates the problematic relationship between elite sport and mental health.

Few players in the history of basketball have entered the NBA with as many expectations as Ben Simmons.

Drafted to the Philadelphia 76ers first overall in 2016, Simmons would be sidelined for the 2017 season with a foot injury, which gave Philly an opportunity to draft another player first overall in the following in Markelle Fultz.

Simmons would become a key piece on a roster boasting 8 former lottery picks, four of whom were selected in the top three.

Before his first season ended, former NBA all-star Julius Erving described Simmons as a “once-in-a-lifetime type player,” in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Similar praise would be sung without end, with Colin Cowherd describing Simmons as “something between LeBron [James] and Magic [Johnson]” on his show.

In January 2021, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden requested a trade, which the 76ers front office showed interest in, and Simmons would address the fact he was the subject of these trade rumours.

This triggered a series of events culminating in a lawsuit, one of the largest trades in NBA history, and a case study in the relationship between elite sport and mental health.

For the 76ers, the 2021 playoffs would end the same way the 2019 playoffs did: a seven-game exit in the second round.

But this time the blame couldn’t be placed on a miraculous buzzer-beater by soon-to-be two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

The responsibility for the loss to fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks fell on Simmons.

Joel Embiid would show his displeasure in his post-game interview, pinpointing a particular pass of Simmons’ as the “turning point” of the game.

Later, Simmons’ coach would doubt his ability to be a championship-level point guard for the team.

Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka recently dropped out of the top competitions in their sports, citing mental health concerns.

Simmons would do the same, withdrawing from Olympic play to focus on himself as the Sixers engaged in trade talks around him, and announcing that he wouldn’t attend training camp in the meantime.

Embiid would express his frustration with Simmons, calling his actions “disappointing, borderline kind of disrespectful.”

The 76ers would begin withholding Simmons’ pay.

On October 19th 2021 Simmons would be kicked out of practice, and suspended by head coach Doc Rivers for not being engaged; the NBA season would begin without him.

The rift between Simmons and the team had grown too large to close.

Simmons’ agent Rich Paul, would criticize the 76ers’ and their handling of the situation.

“I truly believe the fines [and] the negative publicity shined on the issue…has furthered the mental health issues for Ben,” he said, while suggesting the Sixers believed Simmons to be faking his condition.

The standoff would continue into the next year.

On February 10th 2022 a trade occurred, the magnitude of which had rarely been seen in the sport.

Simmons would be dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for James Harden – the player whose first trade request set off this chain of events.

Simmons was the victim in all of this; his playoff performance was poor, but players in other franchises or sports get an opportunity to redeem themselves, and support from their peers.

Simmons had neither.

As the prodigy and the next star waiting to shine, this player who came into the league with expectations higher than nearly anyone before him was never given the chance to fail and learn from his mistakes.

The lack of support from the 76ers exacerbated the pressure Simmons had been under since the beginning of his career.

Simmons had become the face of mental weakness in the NBA and was a hot topic on every sports debate show on television – all because of one playoff series.

“Ben has a mental issue, let’s support him,” Rich Paul told The Athletic.

Akilah Carter-Francique, executive director at the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State University, called this a “devaluation of their [players’] humanity” in an interview with On Point.

Why should Simmons – as an athlete, as an employee – be expected to sacrifice his well-being to win basketball games?

The collective pressure and scrutiny we put professional athletes under is damaging, and far too often to we expect them to be invincible because of their wealth or status.

Simmons is one of many modern athletes who have taken control of their career instead of letting critics decide their fate.