Royce White is a brave man

A win-at-all-costs mentality pervades sports culture, with praise heaped on athletes who put the team’s needs first. For instance, Kerri Strug is best known for vaulting on a sprained ankle at the 1996 Summer Olympics. The vault aggravated an injury that ended her gymnastics career, but she is still hailed as a hero for helping the U.S. women’s team win gold.

This week former Iowa State basketball player Royce White, a first-round draft pick for the Houston Rockets, did not show up for training camp. The reason was unprecedented: he is insisting on a plan to address his anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. By making his health a priority, and leveling with the public about his reasons for doing so, White may encourage many other people to seek help for serious mental illnesses.

Many fans and commentators may feel White should suck it up and play by the same rules as all his Rockets teammates. I think it’s incredibly brave for a rookie to be clear about what he needs:

Earlier Wednesday, White released a statement that detailed his refusal to join the team until a plan to address his “long-term health” was in place.

“There are often negative consequences to mental illness when not given the proper support,” said White, according to a statement released through his publicist, California-based China Myers. “Often, those consequences are more severe for the surrounding people than the sufferer him/herself. I am not willing to allow those consequences to befall on myself or others close to me.

“It causes me anxiety to know that serious consequences could happen if I do not express what I deal with, or if I am not truthful enough to ask for what I need to be healthy. For me, hiding is no longer a healthy option in treating my anxiety or OCD, so I have asked for some help from the organization to ensure long-term health for myself.

“It has been determined that without a specific plan in place, the current workplace is not healthy for me. I feel that it is essential to formulate the right plan for a better chance of execution, despite other timelines or agendas. The most important agenda to me is a plan that is healthy. Therefore, a plan has been requested that will support a healthy work environment. In addition to this, it has been requested that the standard requirements for players in regards to this plan be voided because it is not a standard situation.

“It is regrettable that I cannot be currently present, but long-term health obviously should be the most important thing. I will continue to champion the cause for mental illness being met with understanding; if not, the ramifications are dangerous.

“Mental illness is a very individual-based disorder — very unique for each person. So for those who come forward and ask for help, a very unique support plan should be the solution, given the nature of mental illness.

“No blame is being placed on the Rockets organization.”

Although I don’t follow sports closely, I remember hearing earlier this year that White’s fear of flying might keep some NBA teams from taking a chance on him. (He discussed his anxiety in this ESPN interview months before the draft.) So far, the Rockets organization is working with White, saying in a statement from the general manager, “We are committed to Royce’s long-term success and we will continue to support him now and going forward.”

I have no clue whether the negotiations will lead to a workable plan for White. Having analyzed the Rockets’ schedule, sports writer Kelly Dwyer concluded that it’s feasible for White take his own bus to at most eight of the team’s 40 away games. Yesterday White and the Rockets announced an agreement:

Royce White said he will join the Rockets for practice Monday [October 8] in Houston, citing the team’s blessing to travel to a large part of the season’s schedule by bus as part of his plan to manage his mental illness.

The Rockets, he said, were willing to put their agreement in writing and to even have it included in his contract, but because contracts are subject to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it could be a long process to gain approval from the NBA and the NBA Players Association for a unique addendum to the standard league contract.

“We’ll go forward in a good faith deal between me and Rockets, and I’m totally comfortable with that,” said White, who has been absent from camp. “We can find a way to get it into writing at some point. We do have a letter between us. It’s an agreement, not in contract form, but those are technicalities.

“What the Rockets are doing is astronomically appreciated by me and should be by the mental health community.”

Our society puts a stigma on mental illness, making it hard for adults to seek help for their problems. In White’s shoes, a lot of athletes might live in denial, stuff their feelings, or self-medicate their anxiety with drugs and alcohol. But White didn’t apologize for trying to set himself up for success in his new career.

White said he recognizes his request might be viewed as a demand for preferential treatment. But the people who’ve experienced some form of mental illness will understand, he said.

“I don’t really worry about that because the perception, I think, is just not valid, all around,” he said. “If somebody has a broken leg, you give them crutches. And even though mental illness is different in the way it looks than a broken leg, it’s not really different in theory. Conceptually, it’s the same thing. And I don’t think getting a bus is actually any more convenient for me. … It’s actually more inconvenient for me to take a longer trip, but for me, specifically, it works well.”

I’m late to the party compared to my many Cyclone fan friends, but I will be cheering for White this year. This man has guts.

Tags: Health, Sports

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