Australia has a Ben Simmons problem.
Actually, it might not be all of Australia - but certainly Australian media. We also have a Liz Cambage problem. Actually, it’s less of a problem and more of a sickness.
Simmons should be regarded as one of our greatest athletes. In the space of two seasons (!) he became an NBA All-Star. His is a path no Australian athlete has walked before (save perhaps, for Lauren Jackson), and he has walked it with a nigh unprecedented rate of success.
His play earned him the richest contract of any Australian athlete. Regardless of how you feel about one man being paid AU$240 million, the fact is that is the going rate for his services. It is something to be celebrated.
And yet, in the course of a two-week visit to his home country, he has been treated with little but scorn. One can only wonder why - Ben Simmons said the ‘R’ word in Australia - racism.
Simmons and his mates decided to stop by Crown Casino early in their trip to Melbourne, where the NBA superstar alleged security at the venue had racially profiled he and his friends in a since-deleted Instagram story. Despite deleting it, Simmons refused to back down, and was publicly supported by his sister, Liz Simmons.
The next day, Crown Casino issued a statement to ‘strenuously reject’ allegations of profiling, but Simmons later took to Twitter, refusing to back down.
As you know an incident happened last night at Crown and my friends and I felt personally singled out, no one likes to feel like this. I am very passionate about equality and I will always speak up even if it means having uncomfortable conversations.
— Ben Simmons (@BenSimmons25) August 6, 2019
Simmons’ stance sparks controversy
The backlash was immediate: “He’s only doing it for attention. He’s bullshitting, he made it up.”
How quick we are to dismiss the voice of a black athlete.
(Simmons plays for Philadelphia, one of the most scrutinised teams in the NBA. But sure, tell me more about how he wants attention.)
It’s depressing that this is where we are at with a man who should be our most successful and celebrated sportsman, particularly in the shadow of the excellent pair of documentaries about Adam Goodes. For all the back-patting and ‘now we know betters’ we heard from Australian media, Simmons’ treatment shows it is all little more than lip service.
Simmons, funnily enough, was an executive producer for The Australian Dream, which, given his treatment in the media over the last week, raises questions about the sincerity of the contrition some in the media displayed after it was aired.
Over the last week or so... you can see the machine going to work on Ben Simmons. This country, man.
— Vince Rugari (@VinceRugari) August 11, 2019
Even more depressing is that some within the excellent ranks of Australian basketball media predicted this exact situation would come to pass as soon as Simmons was drafted first overall in 2016. Writing for the Pick and Roll, Ben Mallis was 100% accurate in predicting the way Australian media would turn on Simmons the moment he signed a big contract extension.
“In the first instance, Simmons will be adored. This much is guaranteed. Any Australian who challenges the norms on a global stage earns this treatment. But will it last? Is Australia ready for an NBA superstar who doesn’t play by the mainstream public rules?
The question isn’t actually whether Ben Simmons is ready to be the face of Australian basketball, but rather: are we ready for Ben Simmons, the Australian basketball star who can become our first great NBA athlete?”
Australia risks losing Ben Simmons altogether
How prophetic those two paragraphs were, because Australia is obviously not ready for Ben Simmons to be the face of basketball down under. Since the Crown incident, we’ve seen:
Channel 7 run a report criticising Simmons for appearing at a basketball camp which cost $200 to attend, “despite the Aussie signing another multi-million dollar contract”, blissfully ignorant of the other associated costs of facilitating such a camp, as well as the fact that paying that money to see an NBA All-Star is a remarkably cheap rate, and the fact Simmons also attended a camp for underprivileged children days earlier at no cost.
Former AFL players talk about how they’re sick of him, without a shred of irony, for the heinous crime of appearing at two AFL games.
Alan Jones tell him to get out of the country. Jones was incensed after Simmons didn’t stop to sign a few autographs. As important as it is for someone like Simmons to do these little things, it’s completely unreasonable to expect him to stop every single time someone asks. It’s an unfortunate reality.
If this is how Simmons is treated when he visits his home country, what incentive are we giving him to come back? To wear the green and gold jersey at the Olympics with pride?
If he continues to be treated with little other than scorn, why wouldn’t he simply remain in the States and hone his game for the team and fanbase that actually cares for him, and wants him to succeed?
What reason could Ben Simmons possibly have to want to represent his country, when that country rejected him outright?
Liz Cambage has seen this all before
All of this is to say nothing of Liz Cambage’s experience, a similarly generational talent who has been repeatedly been told to shut up, for the simple crime of calling it as she sees it. There is an irony that the same conservative voices in Australia, the ones who champion free speech, are usually the ones telling the likes of Cambage and Simmons to go away, yet expect the world from them when there is a gold medal on the line.
Let us not forget some of Cambage’s own Australian teammates once went to a costume party in blackface, sparking one of the most moronic arguments in our history.
Cambage was labelled a ‘sook’, she was accused of disrupting the national team - her name was essentially dragged through the mud after calling those teammates out publicly - a remarkably brave act.
On Monday, the Players’ Tribune published an article written by Cambage, in which she described, in incredible detail, the toll depression and anxiety have extracted on her still young career. This was no puff piece paying lip service to the nebulous concept of ‘mental health’ - this was dark. She described the nightmarish, real effects of anxiety, the walls closing in, the haze that medication pulls over her personality.
Bear in mind Cambage makes barely a fraction of what her male counterparts make, but her experiences in Australia have been similarly exhausting. Again - what incentive are we giving maybe the best basketballer we’ve seen since Lauren Jackson to give her all for Australia, when the second she speaks truth to power she is dismissed out of hand?
History will judge Australians
One would have to be either wilfully ignorant, or plain stupid, not to think race factors into this. Australians seem to want all the benefits of being represented by superstars like Simmons, Cambage and even Nick Kyrgios, but wants absolutely nothing to do with them the second they open their mouths about anything that isn’t on some unspoken, pre-approved list of ‘safe’ topics. We don’t accept them unless they are anything short of thankful, almost apologetic for having been born on this island.
Australians, and especially those of us in the media, need to wake up to ourselves. It is absolutely staggering that Simmons and Cambage are treated better in America, one of the few places in the world that could have an even worse record on race relations than Australia.
If we don’t change, we risk losing some of the greatest success stories of our generation to our own hubris.