words by Eamon Whalen
photos by Elizabeth Brumley
In February 2015, Milwaukee Bucks power forward Larry Sanders retired unexpectedly. Sanders, who was regarded as one of the NBA’s finest defensive players, cited an ongoing bout with anxiety and depression that had become too overwhelming for him to continue playing. In an ESPN story reporting Sanders’ struggles, an NBA executive admitted that the league is woefully unprepared to deal with the mental health of their players. In the same story, a separate unnamed team executive said that after attempting to gain counsel from his franchise’s owner about a player he thought may be having trouble with his mental health, the owner replied, “I just gave him 30 million dollars worth of mental health.”
It’s this troubling paradox that Royce White has repeatedly criticized as hypocritical and dehumanizing. White –– who was chosen by the Houston Rockets at No. 16 in the 2012 NBA draft, and who has since spent stints with the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers (though never playing in a regulation game) –– lives with generalized anxiety disorder and has literally put his money where his mouth is. He promises to never play for an NBA team if the league doesn’t change their policy to treat mental health with the same diligent, full-spectrum support they provide for physical injuries. This decision to stake his livelihood on his principles has made him a pariah in NBA circles, dismissed as selfish and egotistical, an extension of a larger cultural misunderstanding of the ramifications of mental health imbalances.
White discovered his condition while still in high school in Minneapolis, and it followed him to the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University, where his play, as well as his candidness discussing his mental health garnered both admiration and admonishment. A tremendous talent on the court, during his one season at Iowa State, White led his team in every statistical category and, in an NCAA tournament game famously outplayed that year’s no. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft –– University of Kentucky and now New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis. Throughout his entire playing career, White maintains that he’s never missed a game due to mental health issues. However, he doesn’t believe that means that there shouldn’t be a responsible policy set in place if he, or another player who was having trouble, like Larry Sanders, needed to do so.
There’s an old adage that states that sports is “10 percent physical, 90 percent mental.” Phil Jackson, the NBA’s winningest coach, was nicknamed the “zen master,” for his work instilling mindfulness techniques into legends like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. In today’s league, it’s commonplace for teams to practice meditation and employ a psychologist on staff. Wearable technology, devices that would track the in-game body temperature, movement and heart rate of players, is seen as the vanguard for improving player performance. So why is it that, in a league where franchises invest millions of dollars into projects to improve the physical performance of their players, there is still no solid mental health policy in place?
For White, the answer is simple. NBA players are treated as commodities first, human beings second. This past year, he wrote a letter to the NBA detailing their irresponsibility and pleading with them to consider changing their policy, cosigned by several medical professionals. The paradigm shift that White is proposing –– to create full spectrum institutional support for those dealing with mental health issues –– is bigger than professional sports. It applies even greater to a society that is plagued by anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide and violence, yet still doesn’t place any tangible value on mental wellness.
Today, White is living in the Twin Cities, working on several projects that include a mental health foundation called Anxious Minds. Here, White details his own experiences with mental health, the hypocrisy of the NBA, and why he was critical of Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony for their call for athlete activism this July at the ESPYS. Because of his care for the subject, he chose to conduct the interview over email.
Greenroom: What was your first experience having anxiety, and having to think about mental health in relation to your own life? Were you apprehensive about the concept of “mental illness” initially?
Royce White: When I first started having panic attacks around sixteen it was all very intense. My thoughts were all over the place, I was really trying to find any sort of relief. So I wasn’t resistant at all, I was embracing it completely. I needed information, and I found it in mental health science. Today though, I wouldn't identify that as my first anxiety experience. Through my education on mental health, I now understand that mental health is so symbiotic with our overall health. It's nearly impossible, right now, for us to pinpoint every anxiety-related health symptom. It's the intense moments that are the easiest to pinpoint, like a panic attack for example. It's the restless night’s sleep that isn't commonly associated with mental health. However, our mental health may be the main cause of something like restless sleep. Extended periods of restless sleep can lead to other health issues, and so on and so forth. It's all important if you want to be healthy. That's the next step to health, really committing to a comprehensive approach. I'll add that a commitment like that can’t only come from from individual citizens, institutions need to embrace that as well.
GR: Because mental illness is invisible, people often don’t know where the line is. And because we don’t have the language to discuss it, or don’t want to discuss it, it can so easily be undiagnosed. You’ve noted before that most Americans have a mental illness. So, where do you draw the line between having a mental illness and just being stressed or having a bad day?
RW: I want to continue to use the term “mental health.” The term “mental illness” carries a stigma that has been made to imply something far away from its true nature. Mental health is absolutely not invisible. No more invisible than diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure. It's a health condition, it has symptoms and those symptoms are more easily recognized by professionals with training in what to look for. It’s no different from any other area of medicine.
As to the second part of your question, we do have the language to discuss mental health. In common citizens, the lack of discussion is mostly a result of fear of stigmatization. It's scary for people to admit they struggle with their emotions, which is completely understandable. For all those people out there that read this, I'd like to share that the World Health Organization estimates nearly half of the entire global population struggles with their mental health, so you're definitely not alone. The problem isn't people struggling with mental health. However, it's endlessly problematic that the minds occupying positions of power, are evading this conversation intentionally instead of seeking real solutions.
GR: Today many NBA teams employ a psychologist, practice meditation and preach mindfulness. Yet, they aren’t willing to adopt a mental wellness policy. How do you feel about this contradiction?
RW: Life is full of natural contradictions, but the calculated contradictions we’ve created in business are definitely some of the most astounding. To have a psychologist and not a mental health policy is symbolic of the avoidance of accountability I’m speaking of. It’s absolutely egregious. Our military has even implemented a mental health policy and plans to expand that, and that's an institution that has many more people to care for and a much harder time achieving wellness, due to its hyper-violent nature. It's not like creating a [mental health] policy would be anything other than beneficial for the NBA. Healthier players would produce a healthier game, and that's true for pretty much any industry.
GR: Do you ever think that if you would’ve been more cooperative with the NBA, you could’ve built a larger platform for yourself and given yourself more leverage for your requests?
RW: Like I said in my recent letter to the league, progress doesn't come from superficial platforms. Notoriety? Yes, maybe. But progress comes from genuine effort. To me, not saying what I felt was true, wouldn’t have done anything but add to the avoidance. Also, I honestly don't think LeBron James could make a group of 30 billionaires embrace what they may presume to be more liability. LeBron is just the product, I don't care how much money he makes them or points he scores, he’s still just the product. A unique and efficient product, for sure, but still just a product. That mentality is ok in business when you're dealing with inanimate product, not human product. The question is, how many points need be scored for mental health to appear on the docket?
GR: What would structural reform and full-spectrum support for mental health in our society look like?
RW: That’s an entire article on its own. I say complete parity would be a great start. In a perfect world, everybody would receive an K-12 education that incorporates the significance of mental health. When people still struggle, which they will, they should have access to medicine and doctors. If, and when, people slide toward the more dangerous side of the mental health spectrum, we fully support the people who can't support themselves. But let's start where we actually are, we have an NBA owner that claimed he doesn't need to invest in mental health support because he just gave a player “$30 million worth of mental health.” First, people like that need better information and then they need to be held accountable to accessing and applying the information.
GR: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your story?
RW: That my absence from professional basketball has anything to do with flying. That's propaganda that was strategically used so that some comfortable people wouldn't have to be involved in an inconvenient progress. I mean, there still isn't a mental health policy; it's not even disputable, there's proof in black and white ink. So why am I not playing exactly? Because I'm not good enough? I just flew to from Minnesota to Los Angeles to Orlando back to Los Angeles then back to Minnesota for this past summer league, so is it flying? Come on. Maybe I was wrong for saying mental health should be a priority? I sure don't agree with that. I'll continue to stand by my beliefs.
GR: You were highly critical of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade's call for athletes to speak out in the aftermath of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, why is that?
RW: Resisting reform has hindered logical progress in this country since its birth. We fight and ignore logical conversations for change. Then, once the results of our action and/or inaction piles up and starts be an obvious failure of policy, the same people ask that reform be slow and non-intrusive. These characteristics could be said of many institutions in America, but the NBA is included. I just felt like the call for athletes to speak out was passing the buck. Those players are in a position now to say the tough truths about a household business [the NBA] that needs to take a strong look at it's own policy and social responsibility. A business that is making billions of dollars off of them.
We have to stop resisting sensible change. It's historically proven to be illogical, and we end up looking back later and say to ourselves, "what the hell were we thinking?" People resisted slavery abolishment, migrant farm rights, women's rights, civil rights, labor rights, for way too long. Those were all logical reforms we made, to create a more just and equal country, but it took us countless lives and years to do it because a few people want to be stubborn or greedy. Now those same type of people are against LGBT rights, Climate Change, Mental Health Science, etcetera.
GR: What would you like to see NBA players sacrifice to harness their true power as change-makers?
RW: Their sacrifice should match the seriousness and nature of the change they want. I believe we have to reevaluate our value of life in this country. Then we have to being willing to move the needle to a point where we're seeing significantly different results. We can't accept anything less. For example, I saw the lack of mental health policy and the dangers it could lead to for myself and others, and I said to the establishment this is not acceptable. I don't think players understand the correlative nature of irresponsible governing bodies. Exploitation, greed and irresponsibility are all the same traits that lead ultimately lead to death cop or civilian, veteran, elderly, children, etcetera. We've been given a narrative that life is going to be hard. While true, it doesn't give anyone the right to deliberately create more hardship, or to ignore their role in making it better. We should continue to work until the end of our days to eliminate every hardship we can, not accept and exploit them.
GR: You’re in the process of starting a foundation, Anxious Minds. What are your goals?
RW: Our ultimate goal is to see mental health become less of a hindrance on people's lives and maybe even see it as a tool to realize a better quality of life. Educating and advocating, that's what we’re committed to. Stigma is a huge roadblock, so that's definitely on the agenda as well. We have some cool projects in mind. I'm pretty excited about this time in my life. My humanitarian ambition will actually be reflected in my day to day work. For somebody like me, it doesn't get much better.