Leave Ben Simmons alone, jeez

Ben Simmons’s trip to Australia is another embarrassing moment in Australian media history (Image Source: Quinn Rooney/AAP)

By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall

Ben Simmons is more than entitled to never come back to Australia considering the way we, the Australian media, have treated him.

Instead of celebrating Australia’s highest-paid and most important global athlete (apologies to Steve Smith), we have decided to tear Simmons down at every opportunity.

The NBA All-Star’s trip back to his home country has been characterised by a continuous stream of derogatory media reports which, at best, reflects our media’s insufferable tall poppy syndrome. At worst, it’s another embarrassing chapter in the Australian media’s history of mistreating black athletes.

As with all matters of Australian racism, Alan Jones probably had the final word, telling Simmons to “go back to America and stay there”.

But the events that led to this outburst, among others, reflects a broader cultural misunderstanding of stardom.

Let’s break down Simmons’s last three weeks in Australia.

The Crown Casino Incident

Two weeks ago, on Monday, August 5, Simmons was refused entry to Crown Casino in Melbourne.

In an Instagram story he later deleted, Simmons suggested he was racially profiled by bouncers at the venue.

The incident quickly devolved into a game of “he said, she said”.

Crown strenuously denied any accusations of racial profiling and claimed Simmons refused to show appropriate identification. Entertainment reporter Peter Ford supported Crown’s account, reporting that Simmons was disrespectful to security and was not adhering to the dress code by wearing camouflage pants.

Simmons denied both these claims on Twitter and claimed his friend was allowed to enter wearing the same pants as him.

We will never know for certain why Simmons was denied entry into the Casino, and venues always have the benefit of plausible deniability, but Simmons’s claims of racial profiling are not without precedent, and numerous studies demonstrate that discrimination at nightclubs is quite commonplace.

One research paper published by Reuben May, President Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University, found that African-American men are twice as likely to be rejected from US nightclubs, and “the magnitude of this discrimination is similar to that observed in housing audit studies”.

While quantitative studies on this phenomenon in Australia are scarce, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission reported a 72 per cent increase in race discrimination claims in the provision of goods and services, which includes nightclubs, in their 2017 – 2018 report.

In the UK, a Guardian investigation uncovered the extent of racial discrimination in London’s West End; reporting on dozens of allegations of racial profiling, and obtaining quotes from DJs and venue promoters who outed their employers for their discriminatory policies.

The constant stream of complaints prompted the Westminster Council to set up a task force to investigate London’s nightclubs in December 2018.

A near-identical investigation by Vice News detailed the same problems in Toronto’s nightlife; publishing quotes from bouncers who revealed that “the practice of deliberately limiting the number of black and brown patrons was disturbingly commonplace”.

Of course, what happens in the US, UK or Canada is not directly applicable to Australia; the point is to highlight that racial profiling at nightclubs has a long history and cannot just be dismissed as oversensitivity.

But whether Simmons was racially profiled or not is beside the point for his critics, what is more significant is that Simmons had the temerity to use “R” word in Australia.

“They refused to show ID to security, yet it’s easier to turn it into a race issue and go for the sympathy vote,” Peter Ford wrote in a remarkable moment of editorialising for a reporter meant to be covering the situation objectively.

Then the actual editorials began to flow in.

Rita Panahi wrote in the Herald Sun that Simmons should “check his own privilege before playing the victim”.

“Privilege is condemning one of the most tolerant, welcoming and cohesive countries in the world as racist because you are preoccupied with race and predisposed to seeing every adverse interaction through a racial filter,” Ms Panahi wrote.

After these dubious claims about Australia’s tolerance, Ms Panahi proceeded to deploy all the tiresome methods of dismissing claims of racism; citing her positive personal experience of the venue and the diversity of Crown’s staff and patrons as evidence for why Simmons claims are unfounded—as if any of these things are even remotely connected.

2GB broadcaster Steve Price also chipped in with a baseless conspiracy theory, suggesting Simmons was using the incident to promote the new documentary film about Adam Goodes: The Australian Dream.

“Simmons was a financier of that film and paid for that film to be made and intends to take that film to America and show it to American audiences,” Mr Price said on 2GB.

“I wonder if this incident at the door of Crown has anything to do with a message that Ben Simmons might like to get out in America about how Australians treat people of colour?

“What better way to get your documentary noticed in America than to post to your 1.47 million Instagram followers?”

Simmons was only an executive producer of the documentary, not a financier like Price claimed, and Simmons actually has 4.47 million Instagram followers.

Price’s factual errors aside, the notion that Simmons—a global megastar under intense media scrutiny—would stage an incident of racism to gain more attention is patently absurd.

As the recent documentary about the Adam Goodes saga demonstrated so well, those who dare to call out racism are often punished more severely than those who practice it.

It appears the Australian media decided to learn absolutely nothing from this embarrassing chapter, instead choosing to sink their teeth into Simmons.

Brad Esposito pointed this out in a piece for Pedestrian, highlighting the ruthlessness of the Australian media machine.

“What does he (Simmons) have to gain from making up a story about racism? He’s grown up watching other people of colour get torn down by the machine,” Mr Esposito wrote.

“It’s part of a media machine which has a great deal of experience in instigating hate, and well-practiced at aggressively pushing back against accusations of racism.

“It’s the machine which relentlessly targeted Adam Goodes. It’s the machine that has already, shamelessly, pushed Young Australian of the Year Yassmin Abdel-Magied out of the country. It is the same machine which howls that we have an ‘African crime epidemic’ blighting our cities.”

The media machine’s treatment of Simmons serves as a warning for the next high-profile minority who considers raising their voice about racism in future.

Simmons’s Basketball Camp

Of all the derogatory media reports, this one was probably the most laughable.

The notion that Simmons’s latest contract precludes him from charging a modest fee to attend his basketball camp is laughable.

Kendrick Lamar happens to earn $58 million a year, and the average ticket price for one of his concerts is still $1146. Hugh Jackman has a reported net worth of around $150 million, but a VIP seating and personal photo at his latest show costs $3500. The average NFL player earns $2.7 million a year, and even though more than 50 per cent of this money comes from the league’s TV deals, the average ticket price for an NFL game is still about $100.

The reality is that stars can charge these fees because people are more than willing to pay this money to see them.

This did not stop the likes of Alan Jones from criticising Simmons’s actions.

“He coached the kids in a group, in a group, for one hour, but it wasn’t free; it was $200 a head, and the bloke signed a $243 million contract,” Mr Jones said on 2GB on August 12.

“Why is he charging Australian kids an appearance fee?”

The irony should not be lost on anyone that Australia’s right-wing commentators—all of whom extol the virtues of the free market—are criticising an athlete for earning what he is worth in the marketplace.

Not to mention that demand for spots would be out of control if Simmons’s tickets were free; heck, even I’d probably fly out to Sydney to get some tips on my pitiful dribbling skills if Simmons put on a free basketball camp.

But it was not just the shock jocks getting in jabs on Simmons; run-of-the-mill journalists seemed to be taking shots at Simmons as well.

Take the 7NEWS report above. Despite every source in the piece saying they had a fantastic experience and the camp was worth the money, the story’s headline frames Simmons as a price gouger.

The Daily Telegraph also did not hesitate to get a few cheap digs in on Simmons for avoiding non-paying fans waiting outside his basketball camp.

“Australia’s richest athlete snubbed Sydney fans by sneaking out the back door of a paid event on Sunday,” one Telegraph headline read on August 12.

Another Telegraph headline on the same day attempted to connect Simmons’s failure to take photos outside with fans to a photo he took with controversial rap group OneFour.

“Hours after blowing off fans at his $200-per-ticket basketball camp, Ben Simmons has posed for photos with controversial western Sydney rap group, OneFour.”

Yes, the optics of avoiding fans is not ideal, but walk a mile in Simmons’s shoes and you might understand that, for a star of that magnitude, it’s impossible to meet the needs of every single fan. For the media to then insinuate that Simmons has more time for controversial rap groups than Australia’s kids is some very trashy yellow journalism, even by the Telegraph’s standards.

Seemingly missing from all this coverage was the plethora of feel-good stories that came out of the camp.

Take for example, the 30 disadvantaged kids Simmons gave free tickets to as part of the Helping Hoops charity he supports.

Or this heartwarming story of the Simmons family granting a free ticket to a young boy who lost his father last year.

Simmons also made a surprise appearance at a Helping Hoops session in Footscray, giving another group of disadvantaged young basketballers a masterclass they will never forget.

Helping Hoops.jpg
Simmons talking to kids at a surprise visit to a Helping Hoops session (Image Source: Helping Hoops)

Executive director of Helping Hoops, Adam Mckay, explained to Rendezview the influence Simmons’s presence has had on kids in the program.

“[T]he impact these things can have in the trajectory of a child’s life in terms of confidence, self-esteem and how they view themselves can’t be understated. It can be life-changing,” Mr Mckay said.

These stories of Simmons positively influencing the lives of literally hundreds of Australian children makes it even harder to fathom how he has been the centre of so much media criticism.

Australian journalists often wonder why trust in the media is so low in this country; perhaps character assassinations like this would be a good starting point of reflection…

Unreasonable demands for national loyalty

Australians have a serious problem with admitting that we are not the most important people in the world.

Simmons came in for sharp criticism for his decision to forgo participation in two international friendlies against Team USA and Canada this month, as well as the FIBA World Cup which tips off in China on August 31.

“There aren’t many better ways to damage your image in Australia than backpedalling on a commitment to play for your country,” read one post from Basketball Forever, Australia’s biggest social-first media brand.

“By committing, de-committing, recommitting and de-committing again from playing against USA Basketball in Melbourne, you are hurting your relationship with the fans who love you most.”

Even I was slightly disappointed by Simmons’s decision to withdraw from the World Cup, it would have been fantastic to see him represent our country, but the overreaction from fans reacting to this decision reflects Australia’s inability to understand how insignificant we are.

Simmons’s first commitment is to his employer, the Philadelphia 76ers, who are paying him $242 million over the next five years to be their franchise player.

There is a place for Simmons to fulfil his national team commitments, hopefully at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, but not for a tournament as insignificant as the World Cup. One only needs to look at Team USA—who have only three NBA All-Stars in their World Cup squad—to understand the comparative irrelevance of this tournament.

And Simmons is not the only Australian not participating in this year’s tournament. Despite being fully fit, Thon Maker, Ryan Broekhoff and Jonah Bolden have all withdrawn from Australia’s World Cup commitments to much less criticism than Simmons.

The point is not that these players should be criticised for shirking national team duties, it’s that Australia, and the Australian media, need to understand that managing an NBA career worth over $240 million is infinitely more important than representing your country.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons (25) walks between forward Tobias Harris (33) and center Joel Embiid (21) after making a basket against the Chicago Bulls during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 6, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks)
“Simmons’s first commitment is to his employer, the Philadelphia 76ers, who are paying him $242 million over the next five years” (Image Source: David Banks/AP)

Jai Bednall, sports editor at news.com.au, perfectly summed up Australia’s unrealistic demands of their star athlete.

“If you…have dreams of watching him (Simmons) compete for NBA championships one day as one of the one or two best players on his team, then there’s concessions that need to be made,” Mr Bednall wrote in a column on August 12.

“There will be many who believe he can do all of that and still play for Australia every chance he gets.

“But those people don’t live in Ben Simmons’s world or understand the incredible demands that come with being considered a franchise pillar for an NBA team or living up to a $240 million contract. No other Australian in history has faced the same dilemma.”

And imagine the criticism Simmons would face back in the US if he suffered a serious injury playing for Australia in a meaningless exhibition match; a fate that befell Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum in 2015 when he tore his ACL playing for the Boomers in a friendly against Slovenia.

It’s time we stopped living in our Mickey Mouse cultural bubble where loyalty and representing your country are the be-all and end-all; instead, we need to start recognising the realities of global stardom and its enormous responsibilities.

So well done Australia, we have done our absolute best to tear down another tall poppy. Whether it be slamming him for being outspoken on a prevalent social issue, demanding he give out his basketball coaching for free or lambasting him for not wearing the green and gold, our ruthless media machine has reared its ugly head again and managed to show its stunning ignorance in the process.

But unfortunately for us, it hasn’t worked this time; Ben Simmons is far too tall a poppy to cut down. His global platform is unmatched by anyone in Australia trying to criticise him, and the events of the past three weeks have revealed an uncomfortable reality: we need him far more than he needs us.

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