On Royce White, Tentative Rocket

Whatever ultimately happens to Royce White's career, he will remain a fascinating player in NBA history. Either as a landmark first, someone who changed how the league handles mental illness, or as weird trivia that will be the focus of a pretty good magazine article in 40 years. Until his recent interview on Grantland, there hasn't been a lot of clarity on what the Houston Rockets & Royce White were fighting about. There was heresay about the Rockets being generous to accomodate him, and then counterclaims that they weren't as compromising as their public face would seem. It was hard to really pick a side, although that didn't seem to stop the majority of sports fans. Now picture is a little clearer, with record of White's demands and, even more importantly, his reasons behind them. Yet somehow things aren't any easier.

The gist of it is that White wants the Rockets organization to treat mental illness like a physical injury. If a third party psychiatrist deems him unfit for play, then he'll sit out the game. The concern is that this precedent gets in the way of business, and if it catches on league-wide, players would get to decide when they play. The conflict of profit versus health is clear here, and White is using his position as a desirable player on the national stage to draw attention to it. He has his principles, a vision for change he'd like to see, and he's sticking to them.

That's what gets me most. We tend to view seizing the opportunity to soapbox as irritating, but that's precisely what makes him one of the most fascinating sports stories of the season. It's so very unlike the typical tenets of a great sports story, it goes against every great sports narrative you know. It's a guy who basically doesn't need to play, a promising talent that is willing to flush it down because he cares about something bigger than the game. It would blow Rudy's mind.

Even more audacious is that he's staging what is essentially a sit-down protest in THE SPORTS WORLD. It's not that sports fans are unempathic, but there is a limit to how much slack they'll cut a figure before they start eating him alive. There are sports fans who take issue with the NFL's safer approach to concussions. How do you think they're going to handle anxiety disorders? He's really set him up to be a target of casual hatred, as evidenced by any place online where anonymous discussion about basketball can be had. There are people misinterpreting his motivations as purely greed-based, as if he was trying to just milk the money out of Houston, or people with a huge misunderstanding of how mental illness works and thinks he should just sack-up and do his job. There are people who hate his political posturing because they hate people who feel too strongly about any cause that isn't sports. There are those who think this whole mental illness thing is for pussies.

It's an absolutley volatile environment to try and do something radically progressive, but he knows that, and he's still okay with it. So even if I personally don't see how we can manage an NBA where every team has a psychiatrist, where most people have some form of hard-to-discern mental illness, I admire the hell out of his stand. Klostermann asserts that at times he's not as smart as he thinks he is, but that's fine by me. Conviction is often abrasive and suspect, but it's a rare quality. At the very least, he clearly knows more about mental illness than I do, so who am I to say he's full of shit?

But attacking the business versus health dynamic probably won't succeed without a big cultural shift to precede it. Like so many things, it seems like the common sense needs to be altered until changes make sense to enough people. Until we evolve into a society that understands the ubiquity of mental illness, and the benefits of treating it, it's hard to see White making any difference. There's no indication that the arc of time will bend that way. The current gun control debate is alternating with a mental illness debate, but the term "mental illness" is such a huge grey area. A higher profile doesn't mean the average joe will start respecting crippling anxiety. If he ever makes it to the Rockets main roster, I imagine it will be a limited test run. I imagine if the business gets what it wants out of him, which is good stats and a favorable attendance rate, they might decide he's worth the trouble. But what a small victory it would be.

I don't know if Royce White will win, or even if he ought to win. Capitalism is so entrenched and necessary to this big, lumbering machine we've built that it's hard to see around it. It's a world that has answers, and if you recommend one that has less, people will always be driven away. For all his conviction, Royce White's crusade seems like a losing horse, but godspeed to him.