Aussies in NBA: Ben Simmons, One & Done and the right to speak out

Ben Simmons is already causing controversy. It's quite the accomplishment for a young man who has yet to make his NBA debut.

We should be talking about Simmons’ passing skills, his fit with Philadelphia’s new cult hero Joel Embiid and how the two of them can turn around a dormant franchise. There’s just one little problem: that pesky broken foot. Simmons is out of action indefinitely, but that doesn’t mean he is out of public consciousness.

Simmons was the subject of One & Done, a documentary that chronicles his journey from Victorian phenom all the way through to June’s NBA Draft. It follows Simmons’ childhood in Melbourne, his decision to leave for America and attend Louisiana State University, selecting an agent, signing a shoe deal with Nike and plenty more. It covers a 20-year-old life that very few could comprehend.

The documentary finds its rhythm and focuses in on Simmons’ one year playing NCAA basketball. There is so much to unpack here. A quick analysis of the headline quotes coming out of this film say it all. We have F-bombs, connotations of exploitation, open digs at education systems and perceived corruption. There are eye-catching anecdotes everywhere.

The most notable takeaway is that Simmons finds the NBA’s minimum age rule farcical. That much can be gleaned from the ‘One & Done’ title alone. There is then the issue of NCAA rules, and the archaic quest amateurism in a professional field. Something Simmons tees off on.

"The NCAA is really f---ed up," Simmons said in One and Done. "Everybody's making money except the players. We're the ones waking up early as hell to be the best teams and do everything they want us to do and then the players get nothing. They say education, but if I'm there for a year, I can't get much education."

The issue of money and value is something Simmons clearly feels aggrieved at, and this is nothing new when it comes to collegiate athletes. If Simmons accepted a Bentley, a Wraith Rolls-Royce, watches or jewellery – the Australian claims he was offered all of these during his lone season at LSU ­– he could have been kicked off the basketball team. Yet he was a money-making machine for LSU basketball. He was a glorified billboard.

"The NCAA is messed up," Simmons said. "I don't have a voice. ... I don't get paid to do it. Don't say I'm an amateur and make me take pictures and sign stuff and go make hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars off one person. ... I'm going off on the NCAA. Just wait, just wait. I can be a voice for everybody in college. I'm here because I have to be here [at LSU]. ... I can't get a degree in two semesters, so it's kind of pointless. I feel like I'm wasting time."

The dollars Simmons references don’t just come in the form of tickets and merchandise. In the United States alone, CBS and Turner Broadcasting are paying the NCAA $11 billion over 14 years to broadcast the NCAA tournament.

It doesn’t even matter that Simmons and LSU didn’t make the NCAA tournament. The NCAA have an $11 billion deal! Such hefty value cannot be attributed to one athlete. It is a by-product of the constant flow of ‘one and done’ athletes. Every year, the next great NBA prospect will be competing in their one and only NCAA tournament. Tune in, or miss the chance forever.

Before Simmons, it was Karl Anthony-Towns. In 2017, Markelle Fultz is the name to watch. The allure of watching a budding superstar in their infancy is the hook, and the NCAA knows it. They market athletes like Simmons and hide behind the veil of amateurism.

There is no easy solution, no universally acceptable option to ‘fix’ the collegiate system. Many people see no fault in the current arrangement and will point out the significant financial benefits that a scholarship can offer (there are plenty, any graduate who has paid off student debt will attest to that). Some believe athletes should simply be allowed to benefit from their own brand; that if athletes can earn money from selling their signature, they have every right to. Then there are those like Jay Bilas, who believe colleges should be able to pay athletes as much as they desire.

There are so many opposing forces, and a staggering amount of variables to consider. What role does the NBA play? Are they the sole culprit for the ‘one and done’ system? What about the NCAA, how much blame does it deserve? Are there real alternatives to the NCAA? Should student athletes protest?

These have been hotbed issues within the American sporting landscape for decades, and they now apply to Australian basketball more than ever before. With a record 63 Australian men playing NCAA basketball this season, Australian teenagers are being funnelled into the NCAA system. We need to start paying attention.

Over the coming days, we will attempt to unpack the key issues at play through the prism of Ben Simmons. In many ways, he is the perfect spokesperson. Regardless of your thoughts on Simmons’ message, he has every right to speak his mind.

He is done with the NCAA, equipped with a life changing NBA contract. Not all athletes are comfortable saying what Simmons has. Only a select few have the financial security to even think about doing so while still in college.

There are no easy answers to any of this, just more questions and tough discussions that need to be had. This is exactly why athletes like Ben Simmons should be heard for their message, not critiqued for the forum of choice. Simmons evidently feels comfortable speaking his mind, making him a voice for those without one.