I probably don’t need to tell you who Royce White is. He’s already received about as much attention as any professional basketball player can, assuming that player has never played one minute of professional basketball.
This is, in fact, the second feature Grantland has published with White as the subject, along with a 10-minute documentary filmed on the day he was drafted. Sports Illustrated sympathetically profiled White around that same time that summer, only to scold him in a back-page essay on January 21 of this year. Last week, he appeared on both HBO’s Real Sports and ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (and made roughly the same argument in both venues). As with the coverage of any cult of personality, there’s a handful of biographical factoids that appear in virtually all of these profiles: One is that White led his college team, the Iowa State Cyclones, in all five major statistical categories as a sophomore (the only Division I player in the country to do so). Another is that he’s terrified of air travel. Another is that he’s a self-styled 21-year-old eccentric who plays the piano and writes screenplays about windmills. But the main thing everyone knows about Royce White is that he’s locked in a contractual, philosophical dispute with the Houston Rockets, based around a mental illness that everyone accepts to be real.
White wants the Rockets to implement what he calls a “mental health protocol,” a medical curriculum that essentially hinges on White having his own personal psychiatrist decide when he’s mentally fit to play. The Rockets feel they’ve already done enough (including agreeing to transport him to drivable away games so he won’t have to fly). They want him to accept their compromise and show up for work. And for most people, this is the whole argument. If you side with White, you believe that his anxiety disorder is no different from a physical injury, and that his mental health advocacy is warranted and overdue; if you side with the Rockets, you suspect that White is something of a con man whose adversarial attitude is an affront to his $3.4 million contract and the calculated risk Houston took by drafting him 16th overall. It’s a clash between labor and management, and his supporters and detractors tend to split down those preexisting lines.
But that practical dichotomy tends to de-emphasize something that’s considerably more complex: Royce White’s radical (but not absurd) belief about mental illness as a whole.
I spoke to White last Wednesday, the night after his appearance on Real Sports debuted. Before examining anything else, I want to cut straight to the most interesting part of our conversation, which happened within the first 10 minutes of dialogue. Here are the circumstances: I’d just landed in Houston and driven to my hotel downtown. At 4:56 p.m., I get a text from White, instructing me to meet him at the Cheesecake Factory near First Colony Mall, a shopping complex in Sugar Land, Texas (roughly 45 minutes away on US-59), at 5:50. When I get there, he’s seated on the outside patio with two associates; one is a large fellow who declines to give his name (“That’s irrelevant,” he says when asked) and the other is someone named Bryant (who’s wearing a faux-vintage 1956 letterman’s jacket and constantly checking his phone). The roles these individuals play are nebulous. The 6-foot-8 White is relaxed. He’s wearing a backward Obey Propaganda hat, a watch the size of a clock, and shoes that resemble (and may actually function as) house slippers. He’s built like a double helix of panther sinew — whenever he adjusts his left arm, the biceps bulges so dramatically that it’s distracting. We make no chitchat. We immediately start talking about all the things we’re expected to talk about. I mention a statistic: According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26 percent of Americans over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. I ask White if he thinks that stat carries over into the NBA. This was the subsequent interaction (make sure you read all the way to the end, when the conversation shifts unexpectedly):
Do you believe 26 percent of the league is dealing with a mental illness, or does mental illness prompt those dealing with it to self-select themselves out of the pool? Are you the rare exception who got drafted?
The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent. My suggestion would be to ask David Stern how many players in the league he thinks have a marijuana problem. Whatever number he gives you, that’s the number with mental illness. A chemical imbalance is a mental illness.
So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that —
That’s a mental illness. A gambling addiction is a mental illness. Addiction is a mental illness.
Well, then what’s the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?
The reality is that you can’t black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It’s more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there’s no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.
OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn’t this mean that —
Here’s an even tougher thing that we’re just starting to uncover: How many people don’t have a mental illness? But that’s what we don’t want to talk about.
Why wouldn’t we want to talk about that?
Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they’re the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, “You stay over there and deal with your problems over there.”
OK, just so I get this right: You’re arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.
Exactly. That’s definitely correct.
But — if that’s true — wouldn’t that mean “mental illness” is just a normative condition? That it’s just how people are?
That doesn’t make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn’t make it normal … the problem is growing, and it’s growing because there’s a subtle war — in America, and in the world — between business and health. It’s no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.
So … this is about late capitalism?
It is not that Royce White thinks he has a unique problem. It’s more that Royce White believes society has made everyone slightly insane. And this helps and hurts his argument at the same time.
The morning after I meet White, the Houston hip-hop station 97.9 KBXX interviews White on the air. He has been reinstated by the Houston franchise and intends to report to the Rockets’ D-league franchise, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, on February 11 (he did not mention this the night before, although he did vaguely suggest he’d be on the Rockets roster “soon”).1 Maybe this will happen exactly as planned. Maybe he’ll just become a conventional rookie, and maybe this controversy will evaporate. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, it’s hard to deduce the level of White’s current focus on basketball. In a theoretical universe, there’s no question he could contribute to just about any team in the league: He’s an ultraphysical point forward who can consistently get to the rim.2 He’s a deft passer3 and an intelligent rebounder. Yet when I ask how much basketball he’s been playing during this long stretch of inactivity, his answer is that he’s hardly been playing at all. “I work out very sparingly, to be honest,” White says. “I probably shoot once a week.”4 He’s also currently experiencing the short-term reward of untested potential: As long as White doesn’t play (and as long as his weaknesses remain unexposed), his reputation as a game-changer can only grow.
However, there’s a much larger issue at play here, and it’s unrelated to the game of basketball. It has to do with White’s wider view on how mental illness — both his own, and those of others — is destroying the fabric of modern living. He’s obsessed with the idea that no one wants to accept the “reality” of a profound social crisis he sees everywhere, infiltrating every aspect of culture and killing us softly.
“At the end of the day, we don’t associate mental health disorders with having severe health risks. And they do,” he explains. “In that Real Sports piece, they only touched on the addictive traits and the suicidal and homicidal behaviors [associated with mental illness]. But there are other elements that no one wants to talk about. Stress is one of the number-one killers of human beings. Stress hardens your arteries. And that’s scary for a lot of humans, so they don’t want to talk about it. It’s like — what is the pollution in the air really doing to us? We’d rather just tiptoe around that idea and argue that it’s the food that’s killing us. But the reality is that stress is a killer of humans, and if we don’t support mental health in the right way, the nature of the illness causes people to become overly stressed. And that’s serious.”
White’s language is intense and discursive. Though usually well delivered, his statements toggle between progressive common sense and difficult-to-decipher, contradictory aphorisms. For example: The crux of White’s demand to the Rockets is that he needs his own personal doctor to decide whether he’s in the right mental frame of mind to play a game or attend practice. That seems reasonable — until you consider what would happen if all 400-plus players in the NBA made the same request (for both mental and physical ailments). It would reinvent the power dynamic, effectively allowing players to dictate when they were healthy enough to participate.
But White doesn’t see it like that.
Except that he does.
“My request was to have an addendum to my contract,” he begins. “Now, would that set a precedent? That’s not really my thing. I asked for something to be put into my contract. Not something for all players to use.”
But then he continues talking. And this is where it becomes difficult to see how White and the Rockets will ever find real common ground, even if he eventually ends up on their roster.
“But if you want to talk about it through that lens, every player should have their own doctor. The reality is that American businesses are built on the idea of cutting overhead. And how do we cut overhead?” White points to the door that leads from the patio to the main restaurant. “Why do restaurants put exit signs over every exit? I bet if Cheesecake Factory didn’t have to do that, they wouldn’t. Because it would cost less to do nothing. They have to be forced to do that. So if a team or a business can save money by making things less safe, they’re going to do that. They don’t care. It’s a conflict of interest to have the team doctor paid by the team. What we need is a doctor who can look at a situation and say, ‘Listen, I know the team wants you to do this, and I know their doctor is saying you should do this. But as a non-biased doctor with no interest in how you perform athletically, I recommend differently.’ Right now, you have players pushing themselves back in three weeks who have three-month injuries.”
I ask him if he understands why NBA owners might be reluctant to give players that level of input into when they’re ready to play basketball, particularly for a disease that’s invisible (and arguably subjective).
“I’m always going to run into problems with people who think business is more important than human welfare,” he replies.
Part of what makes White so baffling (and, to his detractors, so infuriating) is the degree to which he seems totally normal. He concedes this is part of the problem, perception-wise; he says he’s thought about his condition so much that he can now control it, most of the time. But that control makes it difficult for him to illustrate how he’s different from any normal person who tends to get more nervous than necessary. For instance, it’s not that White cannot bear to step on an airplane; he’s taken dozens and dozens of flights throughout his short career, including one to Italy to play an exhibition for Iowa State. He just deeply hates the experience of flying (and says that he’s racked with anxiety for several hours before takeoff, which is worse than the flight itself). White also hates driving and constantly scans the road for “threats,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t drive (in the Real Sports segment, we see him calmly operating a vehicle with only one hand on the wheel). When I speak with him at the Cheesecake Factory, he seems more composed than many other celebrities and athletes I’ve interviewed in the past. But this, he insists, proves nothing except the complexity of his dilemma. “Everything is tied to my mental illness,” he tells me. “It’s like when you have arthritis: Even when you’re not hurting, you’re worried about when you will hurt next. It’s always related.”
White’s problems began at age 165, in a cabin outside of Minneapolis, on the first (and only) day he ever smoked marijuana. The episode may superficially seem like a standard case of weed-induced paranoia, but that’s not how it felt to White. “I think it was in Forest Lake, Minnesota,” he recalls. “I had an out-of-body experience. It felt like I was watching myself have the experience. It was so traumatic for me, and I had such a bad reaction, I started having panic attacks for the next two or three months, in rapid succession. Sometimes two or three a day.”
The son of a cosmetologist and a social worker, White was prescribed Prozac at the age of 18 (he’s still on it today). Having won Minnesota state basketball titles with two different teams in high school, he initially attended the University of Minnesota but never played a game for the Gophers, transferring in the wake of two off-the-court incidents. He announced his “retirement” from the sport on YouTube but eventually transferred to Iowa State, where he flourished under coach Fred Hoiberg (a man White clearly admires).
Somewhat surprisingly, White does not deny that he could play for Houston right now, if that were his decision. He could handle the travel, at least in the short-term. “I probably could do it,” he says. “But what would the effect be? What would I have left at the end of the season? How good would I be for the team during the season?”
His argument, in essence, is that just being able to withstand something does not mean it’s reasonable and healthy. He doesn’t think that a person’s mere ability to manage stress detracts from its corrosive nature. That’s undeniably true. But here again, a conflict emerges from the specific lifestyle White is involved with: The demands of his chosen profession are utterly abnormal. Which leads to another unusual exchange …
What if stress is just part of it?
What does that mean, “It’s just part of it”? That’s like saying people getting killed is just part of war.
But people getting killed is part of war. That’s the downside of war.
It doesn’t have to be, though. We choose that. When you say, “That’s just part of it,” it implies that this is natural. Volcanoes don’t kill human beings. Volcanoes kill human beings because human beings build houses right next to them.
Yes. But when I ask, “What if stress is just part of it?” I’m really asking, “What if it’s just part of the choice that society has made?” It may be problematic, but what if we’ve all agreed that this problematic thing is part of the experience of being involved in a rarefied profession?
That’s fine. But don’t act like this wasn’t a choice.
So what would you have done if, upon drafting you, the Rockets had said this: “Look — this is going to be hard for you. It might, in fact, be detrimental. But that is just part of competing at this sport at this level.”
You can’t do that, though. You can’t discriminate against somebody, because that’s ADA6 law. People say I’m getting special treatment, but it’s the NBA who wants special treatment. They want to say they’re this rarefied profession where laws don’t apply. But ADA law is federal. I’ve always said the NBA should have a mental health policy. I didn’t know they didn’t have one, until I got drafted. But the NCAA doesn’t have one, either … I had to sit my first year at Iowa State, because there was no mental health protocol. I transferred on the basis of mental health issues. Both my doctor and my psychiatrist wrote letters to the NCAA that said my staying at Minnesota would not be healthy, because I’d just been through a three-month case where I was targeted by police for a crime I was not guilty of, and that I needed a fresh start. Because I have a mental illness. But the NCAA denied my waiver.
What was the NCAA’s argument?
They didn’t really have one. They said it was my choice to transfer.
There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can’t stop talking about it. He’s arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be. But sometimes he offers genuine insight into the mediated discomfort of modernity, such as when we discuss Twitter.7 White is the type of celebrity who likes to retweet messages that are sent to him directly. This makes (a little) sense when the content of the tweet is positive and uplifting. But it comes across as unlikable when he retweets messages that are negative and crazy (because it makes it seem like the attention is its own reward). I ask him why he does this. He gives two reasons. The first is banal and abstract (something about “neutralizing negativity with positivity”). But his second reason is worth considering: He views social media as “the greatest census of our era.” And the census data he’s collecting is really, really dark.
“As much as we want to think that these are just people behind computer screens, those people are living next door to you,” he says. “They are people behind computer screens in schools. In hospitals. Working in Washington, D.C. These are real people. How many times does this stuff have to happen before we admit something really disturbing is going on here? I think one person tweeting ‘Fuck you, go kill yourself’ is disturbing. But when you get into the hundreds of those tweets? The thousands of those tweets? I see a lot of people out there with really volatile mental disorders that are not getting help. Because I go to their own Twitter pages, and I can see they’re not just sending those messages to me. They’re sending them to a bunch of people. I mean, if you tweet at me five times in seven minutes because I’m not playing for a team you have no real connection to? That is not good. That suggests mental illness. And even if you say, ‘But I love this team to death,’ it means you’ve put too much investment into entertainment. It’s probably not good for you.”
Because White sees mental illness everywhere, his goal as an activist is the creation of free mental health clinics in every major urban area, modeled after the system currently used by Planned Parenthood. It’s a valid idea, particularly if you accept White’s insistence that pretty much everyone needs help. We talk about his cultural heroes, and he detects shades of mental illness in all of them: John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jordan. “[Jordan] definitely had a mental illness,” he argues. “He was obsessed. He was obsessed with being great. Now, is that bad? It would be, if everybody else wasn’t already telling him that he was.” His dedication to this cause is sincere; he tells me he’s “literally willing to die” for human welfare. I don’t doubt that he would jeopardize his career over this principle, and when he casually notes that basketball does not “define” who he is, it doesn’t sound like clichéd posturing. This is a man who wants his cultural footprint to be deep. I ask how he felt when the Real Sports reporter (Bernie Goldberg, who is also a correspondent for Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor) referred to him as either courageous or “insufferable.” White’s initial response was confusion. His real response was unflinching.
“I think it’s a very true statement. At the end of the day, we all stand on one side of a line, and it’s always going to be opposed by somebody else,” he says. And then he really goes to the rack. “I don’t like to compare myself to other great people.8 But I’m sure Gandhi was insufferable to some people. Martin Luther King was insufferable. JFK was certainly insufferable. Galileo was insufferable. It’s always tough to tolerate people who say the things that other people don’t want to say.”
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. In the coming weeks, we shall all see where Royce White fits into that continuum, or if he fits there at all.
This article has been updated to correct a reference to US-59 and an earlier Grantland video on Royce White.