The Influence Of Anxiety

January 21, 2013

Dear Royce White,

The NBA season is nearly half over, and it's a shame that you haven't played one second of it. Ordinarily a first-round draft choice like you, one who can batter opponents with his bulk (6'8", 260 pounds) and blow past them with his ballhandling, would be vying for Rookie of the Year instead of sitting at home tending to his Twitter account. But you're anything but ordinary, aren't you, Royce? The anxiety disorder you have lived with since childhood ensures that in addition to your special skills, you also have special needs.

The culture of professional sports, with its emphasis on treating all players equally and the value it places on staying cool under pressure, hasn't always been accommodating to athletes with special needs, especially emotional ones. Too often, those sorts of issues have been seen as signs of weakness. How often have we heard players praised for their so-called mental toughness or ripped for their lack of it, as though it's a muscle that can be built up in the weight room? There's no question that it took courage for you to acknowledge your mental health challenges in that environment, Royce. But should the Rockets be expected to bend to your every desire to make you comfortable? In return for your three-year, $3.4 million guaranteed contract, don't you have the obligation to at least show up for work?

The Rockets knew you had extreme anxiety about flying and a fear of cardio exercise, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and they have shown a willingness to help you address them. (For instance, Houston agreed to pay for an RV to transport you to road games when feasible to minimize the number of times you would have to board a plane.) You have painted them as uncaring and misleading in how they've portrayed their dealings with you, but you haven't offered any specific evidence of that.

Remember how grateful you were when the Rockets drafted you with the 16th pick out of Iowa State, where you led the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks last season? In a short Grantland documentary that followed you on draft day, you said, "They took a chance on me. They didn't have to. That says something about people, about human beings." But over the summer that gratitude gave way to defiance. You didn't report at the start of training camp because you wanted medical decisions involving you to be made solely by mental health professionals, not members of Houston's front office—an arrangement that is banned under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. Unable to resolve the impasse, the Rockets assigned you to their Development League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, in November. When you again refused that assignment on Dec. 29, they suspended you without pay for breach of contract.

Now you're tweeting instead of competing, responding with admirable restraint to followers who call you a coward, an idiot or worse for refusing to play. Perhaps that's your preferred method of communication now, since you and your agent did not respond to my requests for an interview. "If I didn't want to play, I wouldn't," you told Slate in a podcast last week. "I wouldn't even be fighting for it. I'd just call it quits, get a buyout, stop playing. But I don't believe it's right that I have to choose between having a very hazardous work situation in this industry and not playing at all."

But the industry will always be hazardous for someone with your anxiety condition, Royce. If after half a season you and the Rockets still can't settle on a protocol, could it be time to acknowledge that the high-stress, travel-intensive lifestyle of an NBA player is too demanding? Consider your own words from that draft day documentary: "My doctor told me when I was 18, 'Basketball might not be what's best for you, because this industry is built to defeat somebody like you.'" When you were a freshman at Minnesota, before you transferred to Iowa State, you posted a video on YouTube announcing your retirement from college basketball. You quickly changed your mind, but maybe this time that would be the wisest decision.

You have made the point that franchises need to be responsive to the needs of individual players, which is true, but they also have to think about the team as a collective. There's a difference between modifying the rules for an individual and creating an entirely different set of them. If the Rockets have no control over your treatment or availability, would that be fair to your teammates? In college you once accepted an offer to transfer to Kentucky, but you suffered a panic attack the night before the flight to Lexington and couldn't make the trip. What if the same thing happens before a flight to Portland for a playoff game?

"I want people to see you can deal with your disorder," you told Grantland. "You can chase your dream." But it doesn't have to be an NBA dream, Royce. You are a man of many interests, music and philosophy among them. There would be no shame in deciding to pursue one of those instead of basketball. But if it really is an NBA career that you want, you will have to realize that you can't chase it from the sideline.

Follow @SI_PhilTaylor

Mental health challenges are real, but should the Rockets bend to Royce White's every desire?

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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