HOUSTON—Royce White may never make it in the NBA.
The Houston Rockets’ first-round draft pick might drift into anonymity as a role player, someone more familiar on the bench than on the court.
Yet no matter what path his career takes, he’s already built a legacy—as a fierce, outspoken advocate for the mentally ill and their legal rights in the workplace. In his case, that workplace is the highest level of professional basketball in the world.
White has general anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder and he’s finally back on the court after refusing to play for 2 ½ months until he got special additions, or protocols, put in his contract to help him cope with his condition. The basis for White’s stand was the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that requires employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to employees with a physical or mental impairment.
White’s often contentious and very public dispute with his team culminated in late January with a unique (cut ‘written’) agreement that addresses White’s issues. White joined the Rockets’ developmental league affiliate two weeks ago to resume the career that got him all the attention in the first place.
"It was tough not being able to play," White said, "but it was necessary."
Lawyers say White’s campaign raises intriguing questions about how the ADA addresses mental illness in US pro sports, and may provide a road map for other athletes to follow. Psychiatrists say White’s openness about his disorder has already helped lift the stigma of mental illness and may embolden other athletes to publicly acknowledge their afflictions.
In itself, an athlete dealing with mental illness is not a recent development on the American scene.
Outfielder Jimmy Piersall coped with bipolar disorder in the 1950s, spending seven weeks in a mental hospital at one point. He returned to Major League Baseball, and was twice named to the All-Star team. Pitcher Zack Greinke almost quit baseball because of his social anxiety disorder, but learned to control it and was named the American League’s best pitcher in 2009. NFL receiver Brandon Marshall has been named to four Pro Bowls despite an acknowledged borderline personality disorder. Retired NFL running back Ricky Williams won the Heisman Trophy and played 11 NFL seasons while dealing with social anxiety disorder.
The Rockets knew what they were getting when they selected White with the 16th overall pick. White freely acknowledged his condition and issues in pre-draft interviews, including a fear of flying that triggered panic attacks. When he flew—or anticipated flying on the ride to the airport—his heart rate would speed up, he’d feel tingling in his extremities and he’d break into cold sweats.
After he was drafted, he flew to Las Vegas for the team’s summer-league games and to a rookie orientation in New York. As training camp approached, though, White began to have reservations about handling the demands of the NBA schedule. And it wasn’t just the intimidating itinerary of flights required during an NBA season. It was what White thought might happen if he didn’t address it promptly.
"If I’m stressed out, if I have an anxiety disorder that gets out of control," he said in an interview in October, "how dangerous am I? So tackling it from the front is important. That’s what I kind of did, to take care of my own health first."
He sat out the first week of training camp after asking for the special protocols, including permission to travel by bus on road trips. He also wanted an independent physician to have the final say about when he could play.
White argued that his mental illness was no different than a physical injury, and the law sees it the same way. But Alex Long, a University of Tennessee law professor who teaches disability law, said making "reasonable accommodations" for someone with a mental disorder is more challenging than providing for someone with a physical disability.
"In theory, the law treats both of those impairments the same way," Long said. "If I’m in a wheelchair, it’s fairly easy for an employer to make modifications to the workplace. They can put in a ramp, they can widen the aisles or something like that.
"Mental impairments and what the employees are usually asking for, are basically changes to the rules and the normal ways of doing things," Long said. "Those are the kinds of things that employers are particularly resistant to changing."
The Rockets let White use a recreational vehicle and referred him to a prominent psychiatrist in Houston. Still, White left the team on Nov. 12 and called the team "inconsistent with their agreement to proactively create a healthy and successful relationship."
The negotiations began again.
Marty Orlick, a San Francisco-based attorney who’s represented corporate clients in ADA cases, said the Rockets were obligated to provide accommodations, but didn’t have to allow an outside physician to determine White’s playing status. Orlick said White’s case could have "really significant" legal ramifications, even though it never ended up in a courtroom.
"Athletes should be treated the same way that any employee in any company should be treated," Orlick said. "The fact they are high-profile celebrities, they’re still entitled to all the (ADA) protections."
NBA Commissioner David Stern, in Houston last week for All-Star festivities, said he was glad that White and the Rockets had reached an agreement, but said the publicity White generated—mostly via his Twitter account—probably delayed a resolution.
"We tend to deal with it in a quieter fashion than this one played out, as you might imagine," Stern said.
One of White’s core arguments was that the NBA had no mental-health protocol and needs to draft one. Stern says the league has been handling situations involving the mental health of its players for years.
"The only thing that I sort of disagree with is that, when someone says, ‘Oh, this will be the first time that we’ve dealt with this situation,"’ Stern said. "Of course it’s not."
Three decades ago, the NBA did create an action plan when several players fell into illicit-drug use and addiction. In 1983, with Stern then working as the league’s executive vice president, the NBA and the players’ union crafted a policy that provides treatment and rehabilitation for players with substance-abuse issues.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 26.2 percent of American adults meet criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder each year and, of those, about 18 percent have an anxiety disorder.
The Rockets haven’t commented publicly on White’s situation beyond written statements. Fans of the team are frustrated, believing that Houston wasted a first-round pick on a player who came with too much baggage.
Whether his basketball career ever pans out, White feels like he’s already made an impact on the cause that matters to him most.
"I think it’s all been real positive," said White, who is currently assigned to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the NBA D-League. "I feel blessed and honored to be part of what has taken place the last two months, despite how tumultuous it might have seemed. It was a very progressive kind of thing and it needed to be done. And I appreciate the Rockets and the NBA being patient with such a new topic like mental health and now I’m moving forward.
"This isn’t the end or the beginning," he said, "it’s just another piece and we’ll just try to do the best we can with it."