Royce White: The most important story in sports?

Royce White tweet

When Royce White was picked in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, he already had years of hype behind him, having led the Cyclones in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots during his sophomore years of college, and carrying his team to a perfect record in his senior year of high school. Now the Rockets are 25 games into the regular season, and their potential new star hasn’t played a single minute of a single game, instead becoming the poster boy for the complicated relationships between mental health and employment and mental health and masculinity.

Even before the draft, White came forth to admit that he is living with an anxiety disorder, becoming the first prospect to do so, according to Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo S. Torre. The potential NBA superstar did so, he said, because he wanted to “start helping people.” If bringing light to an issue in a community that’s never really talked about it before constitutes helping people, and it does, then he’s definitely accomplished what he set out to. But is he bringing real change?

Royce White was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago. Let’s just say he can’t stop talking about it. Take a look at his Twitter. Read any of the (very few) interviews he’s given. His goal is one that he shares with myself and many others, including most of my readers: raising awareness. And he’s definitely done that. The high-pressure hyper-masculine world of sports, where mental health is almost never talked about, is talking about it now. The understanding that mental illness, like mental illness, is not a personal weakness or failure is being made, slowly.

I had the pleasure of meeting sports journalist Pablo Torre about a month ago and hearing him speak about the ways that sports culture feeds into mental health stigma. First, athletics and masculinity are almost synonymous. In both, people are expected to fight through the pain, revealing no emotion or fear. A man who shows signs of weakness or imperfection runs the risk of being seen as less of a man, and the same is true of an athlete. We see that physical injury is celebrated: an athlete who gets hurt and gets back on the field is a hero. The hit he took- his moment of fearlessness- is played again and again. The same is not possible in the case of mental illness; that “tangible proof”, which Torre described as “necessary” in the sports culture, simply doesn’t exist. This leaves fans, fellow athletes, and policymakers to create their own explanations: is the illness just an excuse, they wonder. A cry for pity or attention? A sign of weakness?

So for all the support that White is getting as an outspoken mental health advocate, there’s plenty of hate going around, too. And confusion. And well-meaning belittlement. And it begs the question: Is White really going about this the right way?

I’m 100% ready to give him the benefit of the doubt on his approach to raising awareness. I can’t say that I know how the Rockets are treating him, or how much effort is actually being made on both sides of the situation to come to an agreement about how White’s anxiety should be handled by the NBA. I’m in no position to say who’s right or wrong, but personal experience tells me that most employers and institutions, especially larger ones, are highly under-equipped to accommodate for mental health needs.

Which is why I’m troubled by unforgiving reports like this one that accuse White of “playing the martyr” with his diagnosis, and gives full credit to the NBA. “Most teams in the NBA would never give White this kind of special treatment,” the writer says. But what White is asking for isn’t “special” treatment; it’s fair treatment. He’s asking for mutual respect, and the understanding that he’s operating under limitations. He’s asking that the NBA implement a protocol for players living with diagnoses like his.

To be fair, though, he’s been vague about what this “protocol” really means. This piece, which also displays some pro-NBA bias, makes light of White’s anxiety while making much of his Tweeting. It’s true that the athlete hasn’t been particularly specific about his expectations from the NBA, but again, we here on the outside of the situation don’t really have the necessary information to judge whether White and the NBA have been fair to each other. One thing we do know is that his team has demanded that he see their therapist, rather than his own, who he has been seeing for years.

The Royce White situation has some people wondering: are certain careers outside of the reasonable realm of possibility for people with certain conditions? As a mental health advocate, my instant answer is no. But many insist that the risk should not have been taken on drafting White. We all have limitations for which we must account in any choice we make in life, but these distinctions are ours to make. Whether Royce White is currently capable of fulfilling his contractual obligations to the NBA is not something I can know, but I applaud him for his courage in openly discussing his diagnosis. I sincerely hope that his story leads to greater workplace accommodations for people living with mental illness, and that, should playing for the Houston Rockets remain his dream, he is able to fulfill it.