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.
On hearing that an owner was quoted in an article about mental health in the NBA by ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz saying, “I just gave him $30 million worth of mental health”:
It doesn’t surprise me. If I take you back to 2012, when I advocated strongly for there to be a mental health policy in the NBA, there was an article that was written where a GM said that he didn’t think that I was good enough to have my own set of guidelines as a player, regarding mental health. And the writer was [Yahoo Sports’] Adrian Wojnarowski, and later in the article he said other NBA owners and GMs feel that way so it’s not surprising at all. I think it’s scary, though… it’s very Donald Sterling–esque. Comments like that and articles like this sometimes go unnoticed and aren’t treated with the gravity that they should be. And what’s so sad to me is that if the owner that said that just knew a little bit more about mental health and what it means to be supportive, he would know that it’s not a money thing. It’s the policy and the power. I think an education process needs to happen, but ideas like that can’t allowed if we’re going to have the progress we want to have in terms of mental health in sports.
On the quote from someone in the NBA who said anonymously, “This is an important issue, but Larry is not the person to be the public face of it/He says all the right things, now he has no credibility”:
The first thing I thought when I read that comment was, “I pray to God that’s not somebody who Larry has been leaning on for support.” Because the number-one thing you do not do when attempting to support someone with a mental health condition is not believe them when they say, “I’m dealing with depression, anxiety, or I’m having suicidal ideation” or whatever it is. As far as him not being the public face of it, I think that’s neither here nor there. Him being the public face is not really even a factor.
On learning that Sanders grew up in dire poverty and how that relates to mental health:
It’s definitely right-on point to bring up capitalism when you bring up mental health and the way that we price it in this country. And at the end of the day, if you look at impoverished communities, there are high rates of mental health conditions. And I think at the end of the day, when you go in and you start to deal with poverty, then the mental health improves all around. I think that’s one of proudest moments of the article, was him talking about where he came from, and how those people from that community have really risen up through him for him to be able to stand up for himself and say, “My health is important.”
On Sanders’s comparing himself to Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, and saying that being an all-world defensive player requires a degree of mania and perhaps throwing one’s mental health to the wind:
It’s tough to say. If he feels that way, then we have to use what he’s saying as a piece of data moving forward as a way of progressing in the field. Obviously he’s a high, elite competitive athlete, and he is a great defender, so we have to look at that now. Let’s not shut it off, let’s just take it and apply it to the motivation of what we’re going to do moving forward. There is a validity to what he’s saying about the correlation between mental health conditions and energy or hyper-creativity. Those correlations have been drawn before, and we see that a lot of people who are hyper-successful or hyper-creative do have mental health conditions, but there’s also people who aren’t hyper-creative who have mental health conditions as well, so I think a general respect for mental health would do the league justice, I don’t want them looking at just the great defenders.
On not falling back on the idea that the NBA “culture” is resistant to speaking about mental health because of “machismo”:
I think there’s a lot of machismo type ideology that’s playing a factor. But I think the NBA is getting off the hook, and I think a lot of other professional sports leagues are getting off easy with the “man argument,” that it’s a “man toughing it out” thing. I think that’s a scapegoat that they’re using that to say that this is our long-lasting ideology and you know, don’t fight us on that. I think what’s really going on, is that to support mental health, or to genuinely move forward and progress in the area of mental health, there’s a real level of accountability [in management] that needs to exist, and that accountability isn’t just a money or resources thing, it’s being in touch with the humanity between two people.
For example, if you know I have anxiety, the way you operate now, the way you make your decisions… everything is impacted. And we live in a world where people [in power] want to be less accountable, they don’t want to be more accountable, and I think that in the NBA, that heightened level of accountability on behalf of players with mental health conditions has a financial implication, and that’s what they’re afraid of.
On what players should be pushing for when it comes to mental health and the collective bargaining agreement:
I think they should be pushing for independent doctors: third-party doctors that aren’t employed by the league. I think that would give it the cleanest process in dealing with players with mental health conditions, and the cleanest results. What the union will get is all about what they’re willing to sacrifice and how hard they’re willing to push. But it’s not that tough. And I always go back to the example of me being at Iowa State. As much as people talked back in 2012 [his NBA rookie year] about me needing a special set of guidelines, and I was trying to be treated special and I was just a pompous brat, the reality is that I went through an entire season at Iowa State. We barely had to do anything special for me. So the first thing I’d do is bring [Iowa State] Coach [Fred] Hoiberg in and tell them what he had to do so they can be a little more eased about what they may have to do. Like I said, we didn’t do anything special other than I drove a couple times and if I was ever feeling anxious I was able to go to Coach Hoiberg and talk about it, and our team doctor was involved, and maybe I needed some medication to get some extra sleep, or maybe I needed some medication to calm down some nausea, which is another effect of anxiety, before a big game. But all very little things that aren’t costly. And I think that that fear of that cost is what’s standing in the way.
On what the position of the NBPA should be:
If you break your ankle on the court, of course they have to keep paying you, because you got hurt on the job, and it’s not even a question whether you keep getting paid. But for some reason, Larry Sanders says he wants to go deal with his mental wellness and it’s like, “Oh, well, we definitely can’t pay you for not being here.” Yes. I would’ve liked to see a player like Larry Sanders who needs a year to get better be clear that after that time he wants to come back. Or maybe it’s not a guy needing a whole year to get more mentally healthy. Maybe it’s a week. Maybe it’s two weeks. The same thing if you had a bad back or you twisted your ankle or you’re having vision problems. Whatever it is, if it’s a medical condition, you should pay the guy. I don’t think that guys should be penalized for needing to recharge their batteries. Wouldn’t it make for such better basketball if we took into account for guys needing to recharge their batteries? I think it would just be an improvement for the NBA to take this step forward in the area of mental health and the collaboration of that and physical health, and we’ll realize a whole new holistic health.
On what’s next for Royce White:
I’m going to play. I never stopped wanting to play. I think there’s a misnomer out there that I walked away from the game somewhat along the line of what Larry did, but I was just playing at the end of last season with Sacramento. If they would have kept me, I would have stayed. I want to play, and I’m going to play. If all teams think that they can’t use my services, then so be it, but I’m going to continue.