Rooting for Royce White: Mental Illness and Professional Sport

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It’s always a shame to see such a gifted player not playing. But White’s story is more complicated than most.

It’s a story that reads like a Bruce Wayne tale. And it starts with sweat, dripping sweat.

The ten-year-old boy’s body heaves as he crosses the baseline, another post-practice gasser down, another handful or so to go. He bends down and the sweat pours off his forehead and crashes against the hardwood floor beneath him. His hands come to rest on the caps of his knees as the oxygen his body craves slowly crawls back into his lungs.

After a few seconds, he looks up and readies himself for the whistle announcing the start of the next windsprint. It’s only then that he sees his teammate, LaDream Yarbrough, lying on the floor.

At first, the boy believes Yarbrough, who doubles as his best friend, simply tripped over himself and is milking the injury to get out of the rest of today’s running. Get up, he says to his friend in his head. I’m running, you should too. These sprints have a purpose for the boy: they make him quicker and faster, both of which might one day help him realize his dream of playing in the NBA.

But Yarbrough remains on the ground motionless.

Then the boy remembers that his friend has asthma. Maybe that explains it all, he reasons. But soon the boy sees the drool hanging out of his friend’s mouth. He instinctively knows that asthma doesn’t explain that.

The boy rides in the ambulance to the hospital with his friend. Doctors manage to save his friend’s life and fix his heart, but the fear has already taken hold in the boy’s mind. The thought that his heart, his lungs, might too give out at any moment has already begun to fester.

This is how the boy comes to fear running after practice.

Now ordinarily that wouldn’t mean much, but this boy’s name is Royce White and Royce White ends up developing into one heck of a basketball player. He’s so good in fact that the Houston Rockets select him with the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. They’re aware he’s got his share of issues, the least of which is his fear of running. There’s anxiety for starters. He doesn’t like to travel by plane. We’ll work it out though, they tell him.

And at first it appears they’ll manage to do just that. He reports to the team in the second week of training camp after he’s worked out a modified travel schedule with the Rockets that limits the amount of plane rides he must take. He seems poised to begin a productive career in the NBA, the league he once dreamed about playing in when he was just a boy. The one he ran after practice to get to.

But then it all breaks down. White leaves the team before playing even one second in a regular season game and becomes entrenched in a dispute with the Rockets over how they are handling his mental illness.

The Rockets threaten to fine him each day he doesn’t attend practice or meet with the therapist the team has selected. They place him on the team’s Inactive List before finally assigning him to the NBA minor league, the D-League, which White refuses to go to. It gets uglier from there, with the Rockets suspending White not long after and White deciding to take to Twitter to voice his displeasure with the team’s handling of his situation. And it all prompts a few questions. Will White ever get the chance to realize his dream? And how are mental illness as a whole viewed in the realm of professional sports?

*****


Professional athletes have a way of leaving those of us who tune in night after night simply in awe. And when it comes to the best of them, the LeBron James’s and Russell Westbrook’s of the world, well, we stick them with the label of “genetic freak,” as though they were more parts X-Men than human. But the truth is that though these athletes are indeed amongst the top .0000001% when it comes to their given sport, they deal with many of the same issues as the other 99.9999999% of us. Maybe not with how they are going to pay next month’s rent, but the other stuff, definitely.[1] Only we take the Hemingway approach: better not to talk about it.

Sports tends to be a release for much of the viewing public and, as such, the way mental illness impacts professional athletes does not serve as the lead story on SportsCenter, nor is it part of the typical dialogue that emerges when sports minded people gather together after a long day at the office. It’s much more fun to debate the merits of who the Rookie of the Year and MVP should be. Andrew Luck or RG3? Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson? Who’s your guy?

That’s not to say that mental illness is not spoken about at all; players such as Zack Greinke, Ricky Williams, R.A. Dickey, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) and Brandon Marshall all have well-documented mental illness issues, ranging from depression to suicidal thoughts to borderline personality disorder. Some of these men — Dickey and World Peace in particular — have been particularly open and candid about their struggles, using their platforms to enhance awareness for the causes they feel so deeply about.

Of course, most of these players who’ve admitted to coping with mental illness tend to share a common trait: they are usually exceptionally gifted, even among their peers.

Brandon Marshall can afford to admit he has a borderline personality disorder in a way that the average wide-receiver cannot, because his unique pass-catching abilities mean that his services will continue to be in vogue despite the legal issues that have surrounded him through the years. Marshall’s dominance on the field makes him, in the minds of the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears front office men who have traded for him in the past five years, less trouble than he’s worth. Would NFL teams be as apt to take on Marshall and his disorder if he were merely a rank and file player, someone earning the league or veteran minimum? Probably not.

In addition to his prodigious talents Marshall has another thing going for him: his disorder does not prevent him from hopping on a plane and showing up on time, ready to practice. (Not since orchestrating a trade out of Denver, at least.) Marshall really has no complaints whatsoever when it comes to football, so long as the damn ball gets chucked his way early and often.

Royce White is not so lucky. His mental illnesses include anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which, when coupled all together, would make any work environment challenging. Life in the NBA, with all the travel and pressure packed situations that come with it, would only seem to exacerbate the problems for someone weighed down by those three illnesses.

The majority of stories written about White and his struggle with the Rockets have seized on his fear of flying and deduced that this is the major obstacle White must overcome to rejoin the Rockets. False, or as White himself put it in a recent tweet, “If one more person tweets me, talking about NBA travel, I’ll puke! This has NOTHING to do with traveling.” In actuality, the travel issue has been worked out for quite some time, with the Rockets not only agreeing to let White travel to road games by RV when feasible (i.e. when he can reach the next city without missing the game), but to cover the cost of doing so as well. The travel issue, it seems, is a non-issue at this point.

Others have pointed to White’s refusal to join the Rockets D-League team, Rio Grande Valley Vipers, as a sign that he believes the D-League to be beneath him. But while White did indeed refuse assignment to the D-League, the statement he released makes his position on the matter explicitly clear: “I have chosen to not play, because the doctors and I believe it to be unsafe for unqualified Rockets front office personnel to make medical decisions, as they are not mental health professionals.” Not convinced? When asked during a November interview about the possibility that he might be sent to the D-League, White said, “I have no problem going to the D-League. I think that the D-League is a great way for young players to enhance their game.” Now, you can choose to believe White or not on this, but it does seem as though there is a much larger issue in play here.

What this really boils down to is what can be defined as “reasonable accommodation” in the cutthroat business of professional sports.

Reasonable accommodation, of course, is the key phrase used in The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and mandates that reasonable changes or adjustments must be made so that a disabled employee can succeed at their job.

White seems relatively well versed with the ADA himself, invoking it twice (here and here) in the past few days on Twitter to explain his belief that he is entitled to special provisions that allow him to play for the Rockets. And he is. It’s probably why the Rockets agreed to let White travel to certain games by RV and to foot the bill for it in the first place. Refusing to do so might have been seen as a violation of the reasonable accommodation clause set forth in the ADA and would have led to all sorts of bad publicity for the Rockets, which they undoubtedly wanted to avoid.

It bears noting, however, that the ADA only protects disabled individuals who are, “able to perform the essential functions of the job.” The most obvious function or duty of any NBA basketball player is the same thing associated with any other job: you have to show up. It’s the most integral and essential part of any job. Failure to report to work on time (or at all) in the world of non-professional sports — or as it is more commonly referred to, the real world — are grounds to be fired with cause. How can a manager justify keeping an employee on the payroll if their disability, including mental illness, precludes them from showing up when they are supposed to, much less doing their actual job? They simply can’t.

White apparently does not share that belief, tweeting, “How much easier would it be to implement a protocol that gives Docs ONLY, executive authority in medical situations?”

What does White mean by that exactly? What is the executive authority he’s referring to?

Basically, he wants the problems his mental illness presents him with to be viewed as a medical issue and doesn’t want to be fined by the Rockets if he misses practices or games in accordance with a doctor’s orders. Medical issue or not though, an essential function of his job is to step on the basketball court and train and practice and play, so White might not as protected by the ADA as he believes if this ever reaches a courtroom.

But it’s all very sad, because lost in all the tweeting, bickering and nasty remarks sent to him on Twitter, a very real fact seems to have been lost in the shuffle: Royce White is an exceptionally gifted basketball player.

How White excels at a sport that demands that he do extended cardio work — which terrifies him — and performs in front of thousands of people — the thought of which would terrify millions of people — is simply remarkable. It takes a special kind of athlete to lead a Division I basketball team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals as White did last season at Iowa State, making him a rarity not just compared to the general public, but among other NBA players as well. Most NBA players led their college teams in two, maybe three statistical categories. Five? Simply unheard of.

That’s why I’m rooting for Royce White. Not just because he might one day be seen as a pioneer in the mental illness community, but also because he plays a beautiful brand of basketball, one that will unfortunately remain completely invisible to the world while he and the Rockets remain firmly at odds. We’re all losers in this — White, the Rockets and sports junkies like me — so the sooner White and the Rockets reach a resolution, the better.


[1] Though with all the family and loved ones depending on them for financial support, money can be an issue for players, if not when they are playing than soon after they retire, as was explored in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Broke.
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About Ryan Hallagan

Ryan Hallagan recently graduated from the University of San Diego with a B.A. in Psychology and English and plans to parlay that education into writing about his greatest passion: the big business that is professional sports. He also enjoys writing short stories, obsessively listens to bands like The Gaslight Anthem and actively wishes that a time-traveling DeLorean really did exist, so that he could go back to 1975, far away from all of the terrible music he hears on the radio today. Follow him on Twitter @rallyforhally
Posted in: Celebrity, Civil Rights, Culture, Employment, Society
  • Tyler

    I really wanted the Warriors to draft him at the end of the 1st Round, but he obviously wasn’t available… I am rooting for him too.

  • Don

    Excellant article Ryan.
    I’m looking forward to seeing your articles on Yahoo Sports and Sports Illustrated.