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Royce White: His Last Sports Interview | The Nation

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin

Where sports and politics collide.

Royce White: His Last Sports Interview

Royce White speech

Royce White gives a speech on mental health to children at King Elementary School in Des Moines on April 25, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools, CC 2.0)

After making honorable mention All-American at Iowa State, Royce White became the sixteenth selection in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. He was the first person in Cyclone history to lead the team in points, steals, rebounds, blocks and assists in one season. White made news last season by refusing to play unless concerns about the NBA’s and Houston Rockets’ mental health policies were addressed. This fall, he was among the final cuts for the Philadelphia 76ers. After a series of frustrating interactions with the sports media, he gives here what he is calling his “last interview with a sports journalist.” This is edited for flow. Listen to the entire interview here.

Dave Zirin: Why did you say this was going to be your last sports interview?

Royce White: I just found very, I want to say, not great success working with sports journalists. And not that the journalists individually aren’t good people, but when the story gets back and it gets edited and chopped up…. I’m just getting away from that altogether, because I think I’ve said everything that I could say and this is the last time of me speaking about my situation.

You were in training camp with the Philadelphia 76ers this past year. Did you think you were going to make the team?

I was pretty confident that I was going to make the team. I had earned the respect of my teammates and the coaches, and I had proven that I could play with the guys. Proven that I was a good teammate, proven that some of the things that were being questioned that maybe shouldn’t have been questioned—that I could travel on a plane at all? Which was a preposterous question in and of itself, but I proved that was not going to be an issue. Everything in my mind said that I was going to make the team, but I understand that that doesn’t always happen.

On October 24, USA Today had an article that said you were a “slam dunk” to make the roster, and you were cut on the 25th. People who are basketball fans know that the 76ers are rebuilding. Why do you think you were cut from the team?

Well, I think it’s hard to say… As much as I would say that my mental illness has something to do with it, which it does because of the way they evaluate players as commodities in the league. It’s taken into account when they’re drafted, even. But, I will give the NBA a break on the fact that the NBA is in the era of a shuffle format. Players are traded, cut and that type of thing for all kinds of reasons. And this has nothing to do with the politics of the sport or the mental health policy.

Sticking on the subject of the 76ers, before you went to training camp, did you have assurances from the team that they would respect your mental health concerns?

You know, coming into Philly, and knowing that [GM] Sam Hinkie had come from the Houston situation, I knew that he had an understanding of it and that gave me great reassurance that we would be able to go in good faith and tackle [mental-health] issues as they came. So, in actuality, a lot of the things we discussed in Houston never actually got to the table in Philly. We never had that real long discussion to sit down and say, “Ok, here are the things, right here. How are we going to attack them?” And I was cut before we had a chance to have that conversation.

There was that long team flight over to Europe for the preseason and you didn’t go. Was that in any way, shape or form connected to flying concerns?

My not going was definitely due to the fact that I suffer from aviophobia, and actually the last flight that I had before that one was one I took to Vegas with the Houston Rockets in the previous Summer League. So a whole calendar year had gone by, and we talked to doctors and I talked about how I was feeling right up to the flight and we just made a really sound and simple everyday decision in the medical field—that’s a big thing to go from not flying at all and going straight into a seven-, eight-, nine-hour flight.

At Iowa State, you flew twenty times. How did you get through that and what makes the NBA flight experience different?

I got through it a lot of different ways actually. And the number=one way I used was just letting myself experience the anxiety and the exasperation of the flight—which is probably not the healthiest way. And I also trying taking things like Benadryl, and Xanax. If you know anything about Xanax, about benzodiazepines, they’re some of the most addictive drugs on the market. So I tried those things at Iowa State, I did some of those things, and I got through a season at where I took basically every flight that the team took. And I think that played a big factor on going into the NBA, and realizing from a medical standpoint that the number of flights was almost quadrupling, meaning that the way that I got through it at Iowa State wasn’t going to work for a longer schedule and it definitely wasn’t going to work over a ten-year career, or however long my career was going to be. And it was unacceptable [to me] to be taking a sleeping pill every single time I got on a plane, which would be almost every day for six, seven months.

Do you still want to play in the NBA, and if so what assurances would you need from a team to make that a reality?

My situation’s got to a point where you can’t talk about how to proceed with mental illness as an individual without talking about procedure on an entire league scale. That’s just the way that the league’s got to do it at this point, because of liability and all those kinds of issues. Yeah, I definitely still want to play, I’m pursuing it and I’m trying to develop relationships with some teams and trying to clear a path where we can find that balance between supporting mental illness and what that means, and what the business is right now in the NBA. But again, like I said, when you talk about what I’ll need is tough to say. We really, in terms of me and my representation, we didn’t ask for anything more than when possible allow me to drive, and when necessary I’d have to fly; and I was OK with that as well. Outside of that, it’s really just respecting and regarding mental illness in the same format that you regard physical illness or injury. And the reason why you can’t do that, the reason why we tried to do that is because then we could just use what we already had in our collective bargaining agreement because there’s nothing in the CBA that pertains to mental illness—which causes a big problem, obviously, not having anything on the books on how to proceed.

You’re saying the most recent CBA, the one that was ironed out in 2011, it has nothing in there about mental health—zero?

It makes it tough. When I came into the league, obviously the big discussion was about the flying, and we actually got past that pretty quickly. The NBA did say after some tough dialogue back and forth, that we’ll let you go by bus. Now, once we were past that, we said, “Now what happens if I have an anxiety attack an hour before the game and I can’t play?” Or something of that nature, maybe I miss a practice because I’m having a bout with anxiety for a week? Mental illness will take you down in terms of functionality in your regular life and sometimes mirrors the actual time duration as physical injuries. Tearing a ligament, you hear about people not being able to leave the house for months, or feeling sick to their stomach for weeks, and that’s very common and well known to those in the mental health field. We go in and say, what if something like that happens? How will it be treated, how will we proceed?

If an anxiety attack takes place, do you get paid? Do you get cut? Is this something the team can live with? A lot of questions.

A lot of questions. Very rudimentary questions, actually. It’s something they’ve ironed out in most other scenarios. Concussions, and physical illness and injuries like that. We just don’t have it for mental illness. So, we had to have a tough discussion about, “OK, now what do we do in these situations?” And, if they would have said, we’ll treat it in the same way as physical injury, which is why I harped on that so much last year, then we could have used that format… but they didn’t want to do that. The reason being, it put too much power in the players’ hands, they thought [it would give an excuse for a player] to say “Oh, I don’t feel good.” And that comes from a lack of understanding of mental illness and the fact that there are just as many physical symptoms, a lot of times, with mental illness as there are with physical injury. And, at the end of the day, when a player comes back from a physical injury—as you and I know and people who are close to sports or who have played sports—it’s all verbal confirmation anyway. The doctor asks you, “How does it feel?”

It sounds like their assumption, from management’s side, is that if given the choice a player won’t take the field. And that goes against we know about professional athletes who are much more likely to put themselves in harm’s way.

I think you’re hitting it right on the head. And I think, in terms of mental illness, there’s a lot of misconceptions and a lot of fears from management about what a player will do when the illness has to be respected and supported a certain way. And that’s why everyone that I talk to in the league, in terms of management and coaches, I say, “Go talk to Coach Hoiberg [Fred Hoiberg, head coach at Iowa State] and ask how many games I missed because of anxiety. Not one. How many practices have I missed, or how many times have I missed class? Not once. But that doesn’t mean, in the interim, we don’t need a policy in place just in case. I’m not arrogant enough to say that it will never come up. Because I do know the legitimacy and the logic behind mental illness and what that means. We may never need to use it, [but] we do need a policy.

Do you think that the league’s approach to mental illness speaks to the same old macho BS that links depression with weakness, and links mental illness with not being manly? That’s the vibe I’m getting from management’s approach to this. Am I off base?

I think that we’re not giving them enough credit. I think what they do know makes what they’re not doing even more heinous. Because, I don’t think that they’re so naïve or removed that they can’t connect the dots that having mental illness isn’t not being a man. I think they get that, but I think they’re allowing the media to say those things, like “man up”. Or “you gotta tough it out.” Or, “if you can’t get on the plane then you can’t be in the league.” I think they’re allowing those things to be said in defense of themselves and not saying anything about it, which is almost just as bad.

In a lot of ways it’s worse.

It’s worse, exactly. I mean, NBA.com would even have stories that say that, writers for NBA.com. And this is the NBA, this is their subsidiary. They would say, “If he can’t fly, he should play somewhere else.” Or, this is a day and age where you have to tough it out. And we know when we’re talking about mental illness, that’s not the same as saying I have turf toe. Or I’ve got a hangnail and tough it out. And I’ve toughed out plenty of injuries, and you can go back and talk to coach Hoiberg at Iowa State. I almost dislocated my finger in the first scrimmage. And I ended up playing on a torn webbing on my hand. My toughness should never have been in question. And I don’t think it was or it is. I think that mental illness is scary for corporations because when it comes to supporting it, there’s a fundamental approach that needs to be taken because of the work that the medical field has done. Organizations like NAMI, organizations like the National Institute of Mental Health, they’ve put in the work to know how to support these things and some people don’t want to sign up for that.

Have you ever had a Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying situation where you heard that kind of weakness rhetoric from teammates?

I would say, surprisingly, no. Maybe it’s the difference between football and basketball, but the basketball players and the basketball teams I’ve played on have been nothing but supportive. Nobody on my team has ever harassed me about it. In actuality, it’s been more intrigue and curiosity, and they want to learn more, and they really compare it to themselves. I hear players all the time going, “Oh, I deal with that too. What do you think that is?” And they ask me my opinion on what they deal with. It’s a real free-flowing conversation about mental illness and the line where it’s an illness and when it’s just stress. It’s been a really great experience with the players, actually.

How big a deal amongst players do you think undiagnosed mental illness is?

Oh, it’s the greatest social issue we face in America, not just sports. Mental illness and mental health, and what it means to support it in the right way. Not just putting somebody on meds, or not just sending somebody to yoga, or just counseling, but full-spectrum support. And getting that to be the norm in every city and in every community is the biggest issue we face in society today.

You would have to think among athletes, given the pressures, mental illness is a very undiagnosed reality inside the locker room.

Well, yeah. And I think that reason is that a majority of players come from humble beginnings. And those places are where mental illness goes undiagnosed for everybody. It’s not uncommon that you would find a player that didn’t know they were dealing with mental illness. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have known myself if I hadn’t started to have panic attacks so bad that I walked into high school one day and went to the nurse’s office and said, “This is what I’m dealing with. I need anything that can alleviate these panic attacks.” And then I was introduced to a doctor who would change my life and diagnose me and get me on medication to stop panic attacks. One day goes where I decide not to go and then maybe I don’t know, and I go to the league and I self-medicate and I get drunk. I start these extreme vices, and then plus on top of that the money allows the vices to be even more extreme. And then you hear me on the news now advocating for myself and for health, you hear it because I’ve put myself in a position where now I have no leverage and I’m begging for a chance, for anything.

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What are your plans now, short-term, long-term?

Well Dave, I’ve always been into business, and into my own business. I started my own company when I was in my late teens, and it continues to be my focus to grow that. I believe in humanity. Obviously, I’m a big person on humanity. I’m also very big on creativity and entertainment. I believe in craftsmanship. I also believe in the process of craft in a number of different industries. In terms of what I’ll do, I think there’s no limit. I could start to list all the things I’m doing and what I plan to do… Right on par with the conversation, we are opening one of the first free mental health clinics in the Houston area in mid-February. I’m very excited about that. I will be there on day one when it opens as well. Providing free mental health care in any community is really huge, and I’m blessed to be a part of that progress in that area.

Any last words for your last interview?

I like to say that it’s never over. And my success is far from being seen, so if you’re a fan of me, be a fan of the human Royce White and the things that I love and things that I want to do. If it so happens that mental illness has put me in a place where basketball can’t be a goal I reach, still stay tuned to the things I’m doing, I think I’m doing some good things. Other than that, read between the lines… obviously going through a lot of things with journalism, and how mental illness is being talked about and represented. Read between the lines, because it’s not just for me, not for me as a fan of Royce, read between them for yourself so that you don’t get it misrepresented what mental illness means, because it’s probably present in your life. And finally, be well, because negativity is ever-present and the only weapon against it is positivity, so be well.

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