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Sports Illustrated editor on being fair to Ben Simmons

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

Julie Kliegman is an editor at Sports Illustrated and in an SI column, on a Canadian radio show and while researching a forthcoming book, “Mind Game” about how elite athletes navigate mental health, she’s been addressing Ben Simmons situation. She suggests that Simmons should not be excoriated for asserting he’s had issues, but celebrated for returning from them ... and finds it odd how Simmons has been treated compared to other high-profile athletes who’ve also discussed their issues.

Specifically, Kliegman compares the case of the Nets newest star with those of Naomi Osaka in tennis and Simone Biles in gymnastics, both of whom stepped away from competition last year, and even DeMar DeRozan in the NBA who chronicled his battles with depression back in 2018.

All were commended for taking a step back, admitting their issues. The Simmons case, she says, is oddly different. Simmons has been the target of pundits, fans, etc. in both Philadelphia and New York who claim Simmons has used mental health as a crutch, a way to get out of Philadelphia.

To start, she says, it’s time for fans and media to “pay attention” to athletes’ mental health just as they do their physical health. Writing for Sports Illustrated she noted that pro athletes, as rich, powerful and celebrated as they are, can serve as an example for others.

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.

Specifically, regarding the most egregious claim that Simmons “faked” his issues, Kleigman thinks it is misplaced, basically ignorant and hurt athletes’ mental health in general.

“Of course, it’s tough to know anyone’s individual situation, None of us know him personally although some fans may feel like they do,” she told Brent Bambury on “Day 6” a news magazine show on CBC Radio this weekend.

“First of all, how does anyone know if he’s ‘faking?’ Who’s inside his brain? Who’s his licensed psychologist or his psychiatrist? None of us are. So, you know I think we need to give him the benefit of the doubt here just as we have done with other athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles. Dwayne Johnson, Dak Prescott, so many other people. It’s not really fair to think he’s ‘faking’.”

Indeed, even Daryl Morey, the Sixers GM, told a radio audience that he believes Simmons issues are legitimate.

Simmons said at his introductory press conference with the Nets that his issues are not about the fans in Philly, real or perceived criticisms from inside the Sixers’ organization or even the nearly $20 million in fines the Sixers levied against him, etc.

“A bunch of things that were going on over the years, I wasn’t myself,” Simmons said. “Being happy, taking care of my well-being. It wasn’t about the basketball, it wasn’t about the money.”

That of course has not stopped the cascade of criticism mainly from Philadelphia, as Kliegman wrote for SI.

“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.”

Similarly in New York, both Evan Roberts of WFAN and Chris Carlin of ESPN Radio have suggested Simmons was “faking it,” as Bob Raissman of the Daily News wrote.

As for Simmons decision to go outside the 76ers organization to seek help, an issue for some, Kliegman said she thinks it was the right one. A Sixers staffer, no matter how professional, has the team, not the individual, as his or her client.

“From what I’ve heard is that it’s a little tricky because of course they’re grateful that the resources are offered, but at the same time, it’s not always the best resource in feeling that your private thoughts and health issues are staying private. Seeking an outside resource who’s unbiased, who’s unaffiliated with the team, who has no vested interest in your productivity is often a better choice for athletes as far as I’ve heard.”

In talking with CBC, Kliegman agreed that while it’s “totally fair game” for fans to criticize Simmons play on the court even how he handled his situation in Philly, some things should be off the table, noting, “it’s really hard to reveal these things in a workplace.”

So, why does she think people have reacted to differently in Simmons case compared to how they reacted when others sought a respite from the spotlight like Osaka, Biles and even DeRozan? She said she believes gender and race are factors.

“There is a difference being a man, especially being a black man in this situation because you’re so expected to be perfect, tough and not at all vulnerable,” she said, but noting that even DeRozan has gotten better treatment than Simmons in the media. “There still is a difference between how we talk about him and how we talk about DeMar. I think one of the other factors is just the timing and the financial aspect. I think that is different in Ben’s situation.”

Simmons still has four years, including this one, left on his five-year, $170 million contract and no player ever demanded a trade that early in a max deal.

Kliegman added that how the Simmons situation works out could be a milestone on the road to better understanding of athletes and mental health.

“We are doing better slowly,” she told CBC. “We’re understanding more. We’re having more empathy. In the 90’s and the 2000’s, this wasn’t even a conversation.”

And what would she like to see and hear from fans and journalists when he finally steps on the court in Brooklyn black-and-white?

“I would like to see him celebrated,” said Kliegman. “On the journalist part, I’d like to see them talk seriously about how in or out of shape he seems, The mental part doesn’t seem super relevant unless he’s on the court making all sorts of mental errors. Then maybe it comes up, but I’d like see us focus on him like we do with any other athlete coming back from a break.”

From there, it’s about the larger issue, treating Simmons with respect..

“As long as Ben Simmons is active and playing, I think there is a way that we can do better by him, just asking questions that are genuine and not with the assumption that he’s faking, that he’s lazy or that he just wants his money. So, it’s a fresh start for him in Brooklyn. So why can’t it be a fresh start for us in covering him as well?”