We've been heading to this point for a while, and I was hoping we'd never get there. Shams Charania reported that Ben Simmons feels like the 76ers are intentionally creating public pressure for him to play, and while doing so, "exacerbating his mental health issues." The Rubicon has been crossed.
"Which one is it?"
- Simmons informs the 76ers he is holding out
- 76ers withold the second instalment of his pay, put it in escrow and start fining Simmons for missing mandatory workouts, preseason games etc.
- The NBPA (Players Union) confirms to Simmons that he won't be able to make up the money lost in fines if he gets traded - the new team can't say "We want to make you happy, here's all of the money"
- Simmons shows up to Philly to stop losing cash
- Simmons half-asses a workout, blows up practice - gets fined
- Simmons doesn't show up to an individual practice session - gets fined
- Simmons doesn't show up for a game - gets fined
- Simmons informs the team he can't play due to mental health issues
To adress any potential conflict of interest, I will point out that Shams Charania is also represented by Klutch. Everyone has to follow his work and decide how many grains of salt you will use when reading his reports on the Simmons saga. In this latest report, Shams got Rich Paul on the record, accusing the 76ers of putting money over Simmons' mental health.
“In this case, we have to get Ben help and not put finances above mental health. ... 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. Either you help Ben, or come out and say he’s lying. Which one is it?"
Rich Paul, The Athletic
The 76ers rejected the accusation and pointed out that they made every needed doctor and specialist available to Simmons the moment he informed them he was suffering from mental health issues. According to the team, that happened on October 22nd. Their position is clear - until a doctor informs them Simmons is not fit to play, they expect him to show up and work.
Paul's response to that is that Simmons informed the team he "was not mentally ready to play in Philadelphia" in the offseason. As we were not privy to those conversations, we can't know what was exactly said. But there's a difference between "I don't feel like it" and "this is harming my mental health in a serious way." What was precisely said matters, and we haven't heard any convincing reporting that Simmons and his camp was making it clear his health was in question in the offseason.
Basically, wrapped up in a few diplomatic phrases about respecting the 76ers owners and front office, Paul accused the team of ignoring mental health issues to get what they wanted. This is obviously a very delicate issue and a serious accusation. The league doesn't have fully developed mechanisms that would ensure a fair process of determining if a player is really in need of help or faking it.
"He's not there yet. How can a doctor, who has only met with Ben once, say, 'Ben is mentally ready to play?' So do we keep digging on him, or help him? ... This is about Ben getting back to a place mentally where he can be back on the floor — and only Ben can tell us when that is. We have to allow him to do that."
Rich Paul, The Athletic
I have to state the obvious - I'm not a doctor - and that being said, Paul's point about the one session makes sense. It probably takes a bit longer to determine someone's mental condition. But I don't think the solution is that "only Ben can tell us when that is." There's no way the standard procedure is just taking players at their word. A middle ground involving experts will have to be found.
There's always been a battle between players and teams about "who's paying the doctor?" When Kawhi was postponing his return in San Antonio, looking for several outside opinions, this was the crux of the issue. In his mind, of course the Spurs doctor is clearing him to play - he was getting paid by the Spurs. If you talked to the Spurs, of course Kawhi's guy was saying he's not ready to play - he was getting paid by Kawhi.
The NBPA and the NBA will have to find a solution to a system in which there's a third party, an objective arbiter that will work with players and determine if they genuinely need support and are not ready to play, or if they are exaggerating their issues as a power play.
Until that happens, we will have the worst possible outcome - a he-said-he-said battle in the media.
When this happened, everyone knew Simmons was walking a fine line. Mental health issues are no joke, and it took a very long time for the NBA community to take them seriously. Players like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love were brave enough to open up about their issues and start the conversation and the process of raising awareness around mental health.
The challenge here is obvious - mental health issues are a lot harder to diagnose than a torn ACL. So if players start using them as an excuse every time they want a team to bend to their will, it will undo a lot of the excellent work and ruin the trust that has been built so far. People will just start dismissing mental health, and those who legitimately need support won't get it.
Simmons may be dealing with issues that deserve understanding and support and that he didn't have the strength or the knowledge to recognize them and inform the team in the offseason. Just because he didn't have an interview with Shams in August saying "I need professional help" doesn't mean this isn't legitimate. When your leg hurts, you get an x-ray or an MRI, and the steps are straightforward from there.
With mental health, it takes a long time for people to realize it's not just them or it's "just too much stress," and that it's not something they can just shake off. The stigma of not being weak and sensitive is still prevalent in society. So we have to give people the extra benefit of the doubt when talking about these issues.
The way Klutch and Rich Paul are doing this isn't convincing me they are helping this conversation. First, it was about the way Doc and Joel talked after the loss in the Playoffs. Then it was obviously about the money. Now it's a mental health issue - and maybe it is. But if that's the case, you need to build trust with the organization to get your client the support he needs.
Blasting the team in an interview with a reporter represented by your agency doesn't seem like the way to build that trust.
P.S. There's no shame in reaching out for help. If you feel you could use someone to talk to or someone you care about seems to be struggling, you can find information about the steps to take on MentalHealth.gov