When budding Milwaukee Bucks star Larry Sanders announced that he was voluntarily leaving the National Basketball Association to deal with his depression, anxiety and mental wellness, largely supportive comments emerged across the league. Yet there was one basketball opinion guaranteed to be more valuable and more honest than any others: that of former Iowa State All-American Royce White. The sixteenth pick in the 2012 NBA draft, White is currently not playing in the NBA. Just 23 years old, he has risked his career by confronting the NBA over its lack of a comprehensive mental health policy. I was able to interview Royce White for my radio show/podcast Edge of Sports. Here is an edited version of his comments:
On his gut reaction after hearing Larry Sanders was walking away from the NBA:
There’s a lot of sympathy there, especially dealing with anxiety myself. Not so much depression, but often the two intersect. I think that from the lens of being a mental health advocate, anytime somebody discloses the struggles they have it is a leap forward for the topic of mental health… because it’s just so taboo, it’s so hushed… At the same time, Larry is walking away from the game, and if he were staying in the game, there would be a whole different conversation that would be taking place.
On how the conversation would be different if Sanders was making the decision to stay:
I think there’d be much more resistance. It’s easy for everybody to say mental health is important when the player who’s dealing with the mental health condition is moving away from the game. But then it isn’t on [the NBA]. It isn’t still on their lap and that accountability that’s going to need to be taken. There’d be a lot more resistance if he was staying in the game.
On learning about how the Bucks were touting that they had a team psychologist on staff:
The conflict of interest is definitely there. I think if you’re going to be employing a psychologist, it should be in the form of giving the team workshops on sensitivity to mental health in the workplace. I think the risk for conflict of interest there is way too great, and that’s something that I talked about back in 2012: that independent doctors are what’s needed to make sure that the focus stays solely on health and what’s the player’s healthiest choice, not what’s the healthiest choice that can make him be the most productive basketball player because sometimes those might not intersect.
I think one of the things that’s tough about the mental health discussion is that there’s people who are all over the spectrum. And I think the NBA needs to first acknowledge the importance of mental health, and then be able to sift through, “How do we navigate getting better?” And there’s thirty individual clubs and they’ll all do what they think is best, but acknowledging the importance of mental health first is where it begins. The sports psychology thing has some validity to it as well, but the mental health discussion definitely supersedes the sports psychology discussion. But some of the reasons why guys might be nervous at the free throw line, or throwing up before games, or harping on the results of the game may also have a lot to do with mental health.