Ben Simmons: When Mental Health Issues Affect Pro Athletes

The drama between basketball player Ben Simmons and the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers has been ongoing for most of 2021, but for anyone outside of the sports world, the unfolding story may not be as well-known.

The Australian-born Simmons began playing for the Philadelphia 76ers after being drafted in March of 2016. Simmons joined the team for the summer league but didn’t finish due to an ankle injury that kept him out for the entire 2016-17 season. Simmons went on to play in the following season and was named NBA Rookie of the Year for 2018. Unfortunately, Simmons was again sidelined for six months in 2020 for a back injury.

Although Simmons’ performance for much of 2021 had been considered by many to be less than impressive, it was a comment from team coach Doc Rivers in June that’s been cited as the main reason for Simmons’ dissatisfaction with the team. When a reporter asked Rivers if Simmons could be a point guard on a championship team, his response was: "I don't even know how to answer that right now,” widely interpreted as a condemnation of Simmons’ performance.

Things seemed to go downhill quickly for Simmons at that point. In August, he declared his intentions to be traded to another team, despite having four years left on his contract with the 76ers. He refused to attend the team’s training camp until his request was granted. The team withheld $8.25 million owed to him as a result, and when he missed two games in October, he was fined over $200,000. He continued to miss meetings and practices that month and was suspended from two games.

Personal and Professional Impacts of Mental Illness

On October 22, Simmons announced he was not mentally ready to return to the team and needed time to step away. The team had been consistently fining Simmons for missing games, practices and meetings, but they stopped doing so at this point, possibly due to a clause in the league's collective bargaining agreement that protects players' salary for failing to render services "if such failure has been caused by the player's mental disability."

Simmons' agent Rich Paul publicly criticized the way the team has handled the issue, arguing that the fines and negative attention were only making the situation worse, not better. "I truly believe the fines, the targeting, the negative publicity shined on the issue — that's very unnecessary and has furthered the mental health issues for Ben," Paul said. "Either you help Ben, or come out and say he's lying. Which one is it?”

"In this case, we have to get Ben help and not put finances above mental health," Paul added. "As an agent, I understand contractual obligations and I hold myself accountable in this business. But if someone is telling you something, we can no longer turn a blind eye in today's world."

At the end of October, ESPN reporter Ramona Shelburne revealed that Simmons’ mental health struggles have been ongoing for months and that he has been seeking help to deal with the issues for longer than was publicly known. “This work – with the mental health professionals – has been taking place since the summer,” says Shelburne, “but it’s just in the past week that it’s been more public about that.”

Much like NBA player Delonte West, Simmons seems to have been dealing with a lot of personal struggles that have impacted his professional life. For athletes like West, Ben Simmons, or tennis player Naomi Osaka, athletic prowess--and the fame, money, and adulation that accompany that success--does not mean that mental illness simply disappears.

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