By Julie Kliegman, SI | NBA
New Nets guard Ben Simmons spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time in months after he was traded from the Sixers for James Harden and Paul Millsap, along with Andre Drummond, Seth Curry and two first-round picks. Simmons reported to the slumping team Monday after sitting out the start of the 2021–22 campaign, having cited mental health concerns. Not everyone took well to the positive development in Brooklyn this week.
“So much for Ben Simmons mental illness,” tweeted Philadelphia radio personality Howard Eskin. “Amazing how that was just fine once he got traded. Insulting to those that really suffer.”
“If Ben Simmons is suddenly ready to play for Brooklyn after weaponizing his mental health as an excuse to stay away from the Sixers, I’m going to have some thoughts,” tweeted Matt Mullin, a soon-to-be Philadelphia Inquirer editor. “Some very angry thoughts that will be hard to keep to myself.”
Simmons’s situation is somewhat of a test: How closely have we been paying attention to the underlying messages of athletes who speak out about their mental health? Did previous public discussion, particularly over the past year by Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, not show us that sometimes people just need a break or a change of scenery? Not everyone—in sports or not—can afford those opportunities, but those who can should. And if those at the peak of their professions take a break, then maybe the rest of us can eventually follow their lead and work to set boundaries for ourselves, too.
“I feel physically pretty good,” Simmons told reporters in his introductory press conference. “Mentally, I’m getting there, so it’s an ongoing thing to stay on top of that. But I think I’m heading in the right direction.”
Simmons hasn’t played yet this year, citing mental health concerns after sitting out training camp and the regular season thus far. Some argued that tying this to his mental health—as his agent, Rich Paul, did—was a financial play, Simmons’s exploitation of a loophole so he could still earn money while hanging tight for a ticket out of town.
Simmons denied that perception Tuesday. “A bunch of things that were going on over the years, I wasn’t myself. Being happy, taking care of my well-being. It wasn’t about the basketball, it wasn’t about the money.”
Simmons was said to be receiving assistance with his mental health from outside the franchise, which started during the offseason. He reportedly turned down the Sixers’ internal help. (“Philadelphia does not have a mental health doctor on its staff with whom Simmons is comfortable,” The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported in early November.)
Many athletes have said, including to me, that they prefer seeing licensed mental health practitioners outside of team settings, where there’s less pressure to focus on performance and getting back to work immediately. Most workplaces don’t even have in-house doctors, for partially this reason. There’s also a greater sense of privacy in seeking out mental health care outside of the team. It’s a move that comes at the athlete’s own expense, which can be pricy, but it’s a trade-off well worth it for some.
It is easy to make jokes about Simmons. He’s a star NBA player who can’t seem to shoot a two at times, let alone a three. But his mental health, just like anyone else’s, is not a laughing matter, despite all the quips about a move to Brooklyn never improving a 20-something’s well-being.
Sure, the fit in Philly may not have been right for Simmons, but that doesn’t mean he was faking something like anxiety or depression just to get a trade. Who among us hasn’t had a workplace situation that weighed on our mood or even exacerbated a preexisting mental illness? A change of setting can’t fix everything, but it’s entirely possible that a new team, a new city and a new boss really are helping Simmons feel better.
We can’t selectively decide which athletes get the benefit of the doubt based on whose stories sound more credible to strangers. If you want to believe Osaka and Biles and all the rest, believe Simmons. If you’re having a hard time extending him the grace, remember that there’s not much to be gained by athletes who disclose mental health issues. While there is increasingly positive media coverage and good branding opportunities for athletes who speak up, for those inside the world of sports, disclosure mostly raises red flags, making them—especially Black men—look weak and vulnerable in the eyes of many on the court and off.
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