It is quite fitting that an Emergency Alert notification warning of a tornado awoke phone screens as rain collided with roofs, cars, and concrete across the tri-state area on Wednesday. Perhaps it was mother nature and the Philadelphia sports God working in tandem, as that wasn’t the only storm threatening chaos in the area.
First, of course, was Tuesday’s report that Ben Simmons’ camp effectively filed for divorce from Philadelphia, threatening to sit out until a trade departing him from the Sixers was consummated. Less than 24 hours later, franchise center Joel Embiid followed up with his own stance on the situation.
After a report that the Sixers were being forced to choose between their two All-Stars, Embiid went on a small rant through a sequence of Tweets.
Sources “Trust me bro”!! Stop using my name to push people’s agendas. I love and hate drama. I love playing with Ben. Stats don’t lie. He’s an amazing player and we all didn’t get the job done. It’s on me personally. I hope everyone is back cuz we know we’re good enough to win [10:01 AM]
From my own experience, y’all have no idea how much this media makes up stuff for followers and shame on you for believing them. [10:05 AM]
I haven’t forgotten but 2 years ago, I got booed, people in Philly wanted me to be traded. I even shushed them. Only real ones didn’t but I just put the work in that offseason to be better cuz I knew I wasn’t playing to my potential. Philly fans, y’all also gotta be better
He then retweeted (shared, for my non-Twitter audience) this:
Philadelphia sports radio rips Joel Embiid:— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) February 11, 2020
“Get this bum out of this city. I don’t care for him anymore. He’s worthless. He’s fat…I don’t want him on my team”
(🎥 @SportsRadioWIP )
Embiid finished his rant, tweeting:
For clarity, I love the criticism, I love when I’m told I can’t do something. It makes me work harder to prove everyone wrong but not everyone is built like that. [10:41 AM]
Had this been the first time a current member of the Sixers said something of that ilk, perhaps the case could be made that this was just an overstepping of sorts. Fans would bicker about the justification of such a perspective. Local sports radio programs would capitalize on such content. But, Danny Green’s similar comments after the season make this a pattern.
“It has an effect on everybody, and I think that’s something that needs to change in the city.”
In early July, Green offered his perspective in an episode of Takeoff, a podcast hosted by NBC Sports Philadelphia reporter John Clark. When asked if the Philadelphia crowd can affect home-team players, Green said this:
For sure. It has an effect on everybody, and I think that’s something that needs to change in the city. I love our fans, but when things aren’t going well, they can’t turn on you. That’s the one thing I would disagree with or dislike. Some guys use it as motivation, some guys have a chip on their shoulder, but I think that needs to change. They need to be riding with us, regardless of how things are going.
We’re the No. 1 team in the East, still playing well, and in some games they’ll boo us — that’s part of the culture here, part of their way of showing they love us — but with a guy like Ben, and other guys, I think they need to stick behind them and stick by them as long as they can, until the horn blows. And even then, he’s here. He’s given so much to the organization and the city, on and off the court, that he deserves that respect and that support. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]
With all due respect to Green, Simmons has given little more than agita to the organization and the city since the second year of his career. Beyond that, a significant population of fans stuck by Simmons despite his lack of improvement. Green hasn’t been here very long, and that part of the quote is evidence of his short tenure.
Furthermore, neither Simmons nor the team have done enough to earn the good faith against boos.
Booing Is Fine, But It’s Not The Big Picture
Making loud, monotonous sounds with one’s voice as a reaction to poor performance is little more than an uncomfortable application of classical conditioning. It’s a demonstration of sentiment that the fans — who pay for paraphernalia and tickets — are entitled and even encouraged to take part in. ‘If you don’t want us to ‘boo’, play better” is a more-than-fair arrangement.
It’s another more subtle usage of words that is interesting and, perhaps, indicative of a bigger-picture revelation.
Embiid And Green Are Delivering A Message
When Embiid tells you, “[…] not everyone is built like that”, listen. When Green says, “[…] but with a guy like Ben, and other guys, I think they need to stick behind them […]”, don’t overlook the message.
Ben Simmons is just one example of what Embiid and Green are whispering. He also isn’t the best example of this, seeing as he has largely made his own bed in this situation.
Still, the message is an interesting one. Booing is one thing. The constant slander on social media and the (sometimes) excessive criticisms of the city’s athletes — including Simmons, until the 2021 playoffs — is another thing.
Athletes Are Not Property
Part of the problem is that some fans feel that spending their money on tickets and jerseys gives them an equity stake in the player they’re besmirching. Those fans think they’re putting warm meals on the player’s dining room table every night. They think they pay the player’s salary, so that gives them ownership. That logic is misinformed, as national television deals generate an incredible majority of the league’s revenue — approximately $2.67 billion per year, that is.
Beyond that, athletes are people. Last I checked, there are no humans available for purchase on the domestic stock markets. Just because fans spend money to attend games or dress up as the players, themselves, does not mean they own the players. If you own stock in a company, your ownership entitles you to a vote on the company’s decisions. But, humans are not stocks, and no one is entitled to dictate how humans should or should not react when criticized to an excessive degree.
This sense of ownership that some fans feel is bred from the conflation of paychecks with dehumanization. The higher an athlete’s salary is, the more accepting of excessive criticism they should be.
Money makes man financially successful. It does not make man less man.
Money eliminates the pressures average humans face. It does not rid them of pressures, all together. A maximum contract is a series of payments that reflect performance expectations. It is not an agreement that dehumanizes the recipient and makes them senseless to excessive criticism.
The Prevalence Of Mental Health
The utility of money as a vehicle to dehumanize modern athletes is particularly fascinating because it is most rampant at a time when mental health advocacy is so prevalent.
Again, athletes that cannot handle fans booing them for playing poorly are limited by their own fragility, to put it nicely. Voicing frustration in the form of boos is one thing. Bombarding athletes with threats and slanderous commentary on social media is entirely different. As is making unproven assumptions in a tone that conveys that a fact is being presented.
Athletes certainly are not immune to bad performances from time to time. They aren’t even immune to floating into slumps on occasion. They are not immune to being reminded about their poor play if slumps turn into extended periods of under-performance. Like every other human, most athletes don’t just forget about their futilities when they leave work. The thoughts — the doubts, pressures, and concerns — eat at them, too.
But unlike most other humans, they cannot avoid it even when they leave work — no matter how hard they try. In the age of social media and sports media hot takery, it is nearly impossible to escape the reminders. When that’s the case, even the best of the best are trapped in their own minds with their dark thoughts. The only way to escape it is to play better. But, the moments of darkness are contributing to the poor play. Therefore, you have a cycle. That is the essence of mental health. And it is ugly, even for a professional athlete.
Ben Simmons often referred to his “mental” as a contributing factor to his futility last season. His habit of deflecting all blame and criticism certainly lends itself to the possibility that he leveraged a sensitive, prevalent social topic to pivot out of being accountable for himself. It’s also certainly possible — even a likelihood — that he was trying to offer a glimpse into his own personal battles. But that would be more understandable if his playoff collapse wasn’t the most recent instance in a history of such occurrences.
Bridges Have Been Burned
Simmons has burned enough equity to not be given the benefit of the doubt. But, his personal dealings — as well as the documented cases of other athletes — push the spotlight onto the potential reality that many, many athletes deal with similar vulnerabilities.
It is too late for Simmons to repair his relationship with Philadelphia. A fresh start is necessary for both sides. But, a newcomer’s relationship with their new market is strong until it’s not. Whomever the Sixers redeem him for will be welcomed to Philadelphia, until they’re not.
It won’t be the boos that drive them out of Philadelphia. It will be the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day that will either turn them off or fuel them.
The Swing Factor
Critical reception from fans — as supported by some of this market’s radio personalities who cater to them — probably isn’t a primary factor in whether athletes choose to come to Philadelphia or not. In fact, any conception saying so loses weight when you consider that most markets have fans who occasionally act out of line, too. Philadelphia is not alone, but it’s one of the select few with a bad reputation.
Ultimately, Joel Embiid and Danny Green are telling us that it matters to some. That means that it can swing a decision.
Star Power Is The Most Elusive Currency
So, if that’s the case, how many athletes have chosen against coming to Philly in the past because of the market’s reputation for excessive criticism? How many ‘what if’s are built upon athletes being turned off by excessive criticism?
Stars equate to championships in the modern NBA. Right now, the Sixers don’t have enough stars. That’s partially their own faults. That’s partially the faults of the players who simply didn’t do their jobs. To be clear, none of that is on the fans or the media, by themselves.
Call the modern athlete soft, if you’d like. Perhaps, to some extent, you’re justified. No one is going to change the culture of Philadelphia or its fans. And they shouldn’t change, either. Sure, in their worst moments, Philadelphia fans can be overwhelming, to put it nicely. But, the rest of the time, they die for their athletes. All you have to do is play to your own standard to be loved in this market.
But, perhaps some introspection would change the narrative. Joel Embiid and Danny Green are telling us it might just help. Perhaps that gets athletes to view Philadelphia differently. And maybe Philly will evolve from a large-market team operating as a mid-market franchise to the large-market franchise it should be. Maybe the rings are more and shorter between, too.
Doesn’t that make it worth thinking about?