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Ben Simmons’s Mental Health Is Not a Joke

How closely have we been paying attention to the underlying messages of athletes who speak out about their mental health?

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 take them. 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.”

Ben Simmons

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 pricey, 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.

Writing in December, The New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas put it this way: “Reflexively doubting Simmons risks undermining the seriousness of [his] concerns; it is difficult to express skepticism without reinforcing the old stigma.” In other words, you don’t get to pick and choose which athletes you support. Criticism of one casts doubt on everyone struggling and builds upon the flawed belief that athletes must be “mentally tough.”

The jokes and outright criticism of Simmons call to mind a story those of us with mental illness have unfortunately heard before: Oh, great, you’re better! You must not have been that sick to begin with. Or: Hey, you don’t look sick. I saw you smile just a few minutes ago.

“They should be happy I’m smiling,” Simmons told reporters Tuesday when asked about the scrutiny he was under for daring to look like he was enjoying himself the day before, on the sideline at Barclays as the Nets took on the Kings.

One smile does not heal somebody. One new job does not, either.

If you want to go ahead and laugh at Simmons or criticize him, you may as well tear down your mentally ill coworkers, friends and family, too. We don’t decide which conditions we have. We then shouldn’t decide whose are legitimate. 

More NBA Coverage:

Trade Grades: 76ers Acquire Harden From Nets for Simmons
Questions Around Ben Simmons Remain Despite Trade
Winners and Losers From the NBA's Trade Deadline