By Connor Thomas
Ben Simmons is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets. James Harden is now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. Those are about the only two agreed upon things that resulted from the assumed conclusion of a 8 month long reality tv show masquerading as a sports story. Everything outside of the actual terms of the trade has been hotly debated by both local and national media, but recently there has been a new buzz word (phrase?) that has been applied to the situation: “mental health”. Mental health has been a part of the conversation surrounding Ben Simmons for months now, since he informed the Sixers and the rest of the world that the reason he would not be playing for the team this season is because he is not mentally ready to play basketball. It is not wrong, then, to refer to mental health as a huge factor, possibly the biggest factor, in this entire situation that has led to Simmons ultimately leaving Philadelphia. However, it is reprehensible how some people, especially in the national media, especially since the trade transpired, have decided to use mental health as a sort of debate trump card to prove their own points.
First of all, let’s make sure the record is clear on what has occurred over the course of the past couple months. Ben Simmons clearly was under some mental anguish during and in the months following his poor performance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks. How much that mentality affected him is a question only he can answer. He absolutely received criticism from the Philadelphia fan base, some warranted, some not. Simmons also, however, received significant criticism, teasing, and questioning on a national scale, even to the extent of the ESPY’s running a skit claiming he shot enough bricks to build a house. It was not an ideal situation to say the least, but to pretend like Philadelphia was the only, or even the main, criticizer of Simmons is unfair. In fact, the support shown by Philly fans, while not unwavering, was more than you could argue Simmons deserved based on his performance. In Philadelphia, we are quick to criticize, and yet Simmons received support until the day he proved he was no longer interested in receiving that support. That day was when he said this was no longer a situation he wanted to be in, and he preferred to not play for the Sixers ever again.
Fine. Go play somewhere else, that’s a normal request, especially in today’s NBA. Players do it all the time. They let it be known they want out, they slog through some meaningless games until the team finds a suitable trade partner, and then they move on. Except Simmons wasn’t willing to swallow his pride. He tried to sit out of training camp until he started to get fined, and then put in a half-assed appearance that led to his dismissal from a team practice and one day suspension from the team. Instead of coming back and actually giving real effort to play with the Sixers, he decided to tell the organization that he was not in the mental state to play basketball in any capacity, leading to his sitting out of all of the team’s games this year. Claiming to be mentally unready to play basketball is not, and has never been the issue here. The main issue is a question of timing. Simmons only decided to contact the Sixers and report to camp once being fined. He also attempted to use the CBA clause that he is facing an obstacle to a return to play, but refused to disclose the required information about what independent therapist or doctor he was seeing to help him overcome that obstacle. Is it fair to blindly assume that Simmons was using mental health as an excuse? No, not at all. But that is not what is happening here.
The final straw for people who have closely monitored this situation from the beginning has been what Simmons has now done following his exit from Philadelphia. There has already been a warranted level of skepticism surrounding his reasoning for being away from the team, considering the attempt to recoup his fines and the unwillingness from Simmons to provide the required information through the CBA on what therapist or doctor he is using to help him work through his mental health issues. This doesn’t mean that Simmons isn’t facing mental health issues, but it does open the door for the argument that he is using it as a vehicle to avoid his responsibilities and attempt to make back money that he was forfeiting to the team. Simmons allowed that questioning by his actions over the past couple months, and now, when Sixers fans and media see him sitting happily on the bench in Brooklyn and hears him set a tentative timeline for return to basketball activities, it’s hard to not see the coincidence between leaving Philadelphia and immediately getting closer to being ready to play. Mental health is a serious issue, and if Simmons indeed did what the timeline makes it seem he did – using a mental health issue to attempt to avoid being fined and not have to actually earn a paycheck while waiting out a trade – people are right to be upset with him. It is perfectly fine to acknowledge Simmons has been in a tough mental state, while also realizing that he could have been exploiting it to avoid his responsibility to the Sixers. Mental health is not a vehicle to use to an individual’s own gain, and it at least SEEMS that Simmons was doing that to some extent over the past couple months.
He’s not the only one, though, that is attempting to spin a mental health issue to his own gain. Enter the national media. The same groups of analysts and talking heads that mocked Simmons mercilessly following the Hawks series (and some, for years before) have now taken up the fight on behalf of the 25 year old star. If you have been following this situation closely, you are well aware of the questionable timing and murkiness of Simmons’ actions. And yet, there are now people who are blaming Philadelphia for causing his mental state to deteriorate and giving him basically a moral blank check. Mental health is absolutely a touchy subject because of the difficulty in seeing who is actually suffering; it’s not a sickness that has easily visible symptoms. However, it is neither right, nor fair, to hear mental health issues and immediately absolve the person claiming those issues of all fault in the situation. It is also not a weapon to be used to win arguments. Mental health is not a catch all that proves fault in a fan base, and it is disrespectful to people suffering from serious issues to use it as such. So, to Ben Simmons, who played a role in creating this situation and then seemed to try and worm his way out of the consequences of his actions by using a serious issue to his gain, and to the national media, who has given him a moral blank check and shifted the blame to the Philadelphia fan base, shame on you. We all need to be better, not just the city that you want to point the finger at.