Royce White slams it down for Iowa State. (Flickr/Reese Strickland)
This week, the most famous NBA player yet to play in the NBA finally took the court . Royce White, rookie forward for the Houston Rockets, suited up for their D-League team, the esteemed Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In eighteen minutes, he had seven points, eight rebounds and four assists.
But the bigger story was that White played at all. For months, the 21-year-old has been sitting out the season in protest: a rebel with a cause. White has been battling the Rockets over how they would deal with issues surrounding his mental health. The first-round draft-pick has an anxiety disorder that affects how he handles everything from flying to practices. He has made it clear amidst an avalanche of criticism that his mental health is more important than his contract or career. Throughout this difficult fall, White has become a crusader for change, calling out not just the NBA for disregarding mental illness and treating him like “a commodity” but also the fans that have sent him “hundreds” of violent and especially homophobic threats. White isn’t gay, but apparently, for some, caring about your mental health is the equivalent.
Until a recent interview however, it wasn’t clear just how politically thoughtful, serious and even revolutionary an athlete we have in Royce White. For White, this isn’t just about his struggle or changing how NBA teams treat mental illness. It’s about something far greater. In his interview on the ESPN spin-off site Grantland  with journalist Chuck Klosterman, White said that the question we are scared to ask in the United States is, “How many people don’t have a mental illness?” Klosterman responded, “Why wouldn’t we want to talk about that?”
White’s reply is one for the ages:
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”.… [T]he 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.*
As if this wasn’t enough for one interview, White also said that he wants to use basketball as a platform to fight for universal mental health coverage with clinics in every community. He claimed that he is willing to “die for this.”
When an athlete uses their hyper-exalted position to fight for something greater than themselves they are, consciously or not, laying claim to a powerful tradition. It’s a tradition marked by people like Billie Jean King, Bill Russell and, of course, Muhammad Ali. In listening to White, I was reminded of something Ali once said: “All of my boxing, all of my running around, all of my publicity, was just the start of my life. Now my life is starting—fighting injustice, fighting racism, fighting crime, fighting indecency, fighting poverty. Using this face that the world knows through fame and going out and representing truth.”
White as well is that rare person who wants to use his fame to represent truth. There is of course an ocean of difference between Royce White and Muhammad Ali in terms of athletic accomplishment and cultural capital. But there’s a subtler difference as well. Ali at his political apex was part of a massive antiwar wave. Even though the boxing establishment and much of the media despised him, he had an army of supporters. Contrast that to today. There is no wave of people standing up for the rights of the mentally ill. There is no one in mainstream politics talking about the mental health crisis that pulses beneath daily life in this country. There is no one on Capitol Hill pointing out what’s in plain sight every day.
Think about all the massive attention we are paying to gun violence and the absence of attention to what makes people crack and become violent in the first place. Think about the tragic shootings in Chicago and the absence of discussion about the poverty and racism that define the parts of that city where the murders are taking place. Think about the mental stress that precedes so much of the violence in communities around the country. This is the discussion Royce White wants us to have, and the 21-year-old seems like the only person in public life who wants to have it. In other words, if Ali, like no one else, brilliantly rode the rapids of a tumultuous era, Royce White is attempting something far more daunting. He’s trying to change the direction of the whole damn river.
* If people want to read a trenchant critique of how Klosterman conducted his interview with Royce White, I recommend this terrific article  by Nathan Kalman-Lamb on the LeftHookJournal blog.