Royce White — Fighting Mental Health Awareness from the NBA to MMA

Royce White

In 2012, Royce White was a first-round NBA draft pick by the Houston Rockets. Articulate and smart, the six-foot-eight Iowa State recruit was a formidable standout on the court. One of few players in NCAA to lead his team on points, rebounds, assists, steal and blocks. Unlike other players, he spoke publicly in college about his lifelong struggle with anxiety, which made front page news as few athletes at the time talked openly about their mental health. It would become even bigger news later, when White, during his rookie season with the NBA, realized the league had no mental health policy. He pushed back—hard, as did they. Incredulous at the absence of coverage, he was more stunned by the league’s blatant refusal to even address mental health. The Houston Rockets ultimate answer was to reassign the Minnesota-native to the minor leagues. The NBA’s governing body sat on the sidelines. As White continued to advocate publicly for a mental health policy, they hit an impasse and White, just 21 at the time, refused to play another NBA game without a comprehensive policy in place, a stand taken as much for himself as for his fellow players, the entire league and the world that it touched.

The battleground extends well beyond White, for he sees the NBA as a perfect platform to springboard the conversation of mental health into the open, to exemplify reform and neutralize the stigma. And slowly, as more and more NBA players have stepped forward over the last six years to speak about their inner struggles, and coaches and general managers join the conversation, the NBA is showing some signs of change.

In the meantime, White moved on, playing in the National Basketball League of Canada for the London Lightning. In his only two seasons, the team won two championships and White was awarded an MVP and scoring title. Today, you’ll find him as committed as ever to his activism on behalf of mental health, giving interviews and talks, launching his own website, and writing two books, Long Past Overdue: Mental Health & The NBA and MMA x NBA: A Critique of Modern Sport in America, released this year. His biggest news of late is a career switch to mixed martial arts (MMA). White sat down with ABILITY to share the details of his story, talk about how his battle with the NBA transcends basketball, and why mental health is our most important social conversation.

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Chet Cooper: Where were you in your basketball career when the media started covering your anxiety condition?

White: I’ll just get straight to the good stuff.

Cooper: (laughs) OK!

White: I’ll give you a condensed run-down of how everything unfolded that brought me into the public sphere on this topic. I was playing college basketball at Iowa State University, and I decided to speak publicly about having an anxiety disorder and my history with having dealt with anxiety most of my life. I was formally diagnosed at around age 15.

I was still able to play that entire season at Iowa State University; I had no troubles, didn’t miss a game, and played extremely well. I was the only player in the country, and one of the only players in history to lead my team in all five major statistical categories. That allowed me to be considered for the NBA draft. After talking to my college coach and going up against some pretty high-level projected draft picks in the NCAA tournament, it was clear that I would have a shot at being drafted. That was something my coach advised me to do. So I declared for the draft after the season.

When I declared for the draft, something happened. I should go back a step and say that when I had talked publicly about my anxiety during my college season, it became a huge front-page story, like an ESPN ticker-type story, because nobody was doing it then. Nobody—no athletes—were talking about anxiety and mental health, and no public figures were really talking about anxiety and mental health like that at the time. If you look back, the most notable figures, aside from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and Senator Paul Wellstone, people who really pioneered the mental health space and the Disabilities Act from a political side or strictly a medical side. There were no entertainment/sports figures who went public about mental health —unless it had come vis-à-vis somebody being in trouble or having done something that required disciplinary action or somebody having a substance abuse issue. And then they went public as a form of damage control or years later as a reflection. Not in real time and certainly not with a proactive angle.

I spoke about it while I was still in college, and it was a big story. But when I went to declared for the NBA draft, it became a really big story. It was one of the biggest stories of that NBA draft.

Cooper: What year was this?

White: This was 2012-2013. I had become what Sports Illustrated called “The mystery pick” in an feature. It was in the issue with LeBron James on the cover of the year—he had just won his first NBA championship in Miami. In that issue there was a spread on me and the title was, “The Mystery Pick.” I wasn’t the mystery pick because there were huge questions about my talent or skill, my NBA readiness or my ability to play at all. The whole premise of this mystery pick was based on two things: number one, that I had spoken about anxiety publicly, and that the NBA had never had a player who had spoken about anxiety prior to being drafted, and not only that, but there weren’t any NBA players who had spoken as openly about mental health and anxiety as I did while I was in college, so nobody knew how the NBA’s upper management and ownership viewed mental health in terms of the risk analysis of a draft prospect. But for a second reason as well, I was called the mystery pick because I was viewed as eclectic.

So two of those things in the story become two sides of the same coin in this battle with stigma or perception, or you could say with identity and power struggle.

I got drafted after being the mystery pick, after there being much talk about where I was supposed to be drafted—if at all—because of this anxiety disorder. My approach to the draft process was to be honest about my anxiety. About who I was as a person. I talked even more publicly than I had at Iowa State. I voiced my views on mental health as a conversation. Me speaking about this was more of a defense mechanism than anything, because I view transparency and the ability to be honest, the ability to be honest with yourself and the ability to be honest with the people around you as a very serious first step to building the foundations of moving forward with your condition. I don’t like to say “recovering” or “healing” or “getting over.” I think all of those words are loaded and weaponized against people who struggle with disabilities, and those are linguistic issues. But I like to say “moving forward” with your anxiety.

Cooper: Nice.

Royce White
London Lightning, National Basketball League of Canada—during White’s two seasons they won two championships and White was awarded a MVP and Scoring Title.

White: It was just extremely obvious to me that I should be honest, and be able to be honest about having anxiety or my mental health. In my mind, there was no reason for me to hide it in the draft process. I got drafted 16 by the Houston Rockets. I’ll go back and tell you a story that really catalyzed something for me afterwards.

So I get drafted, and in the initial conversations we discussed building an environment or some type of understanding between myself and the team regarding mental health, my anxiety, and trying to duplicate an environment that would allow me to be successful like I had been at Iowa State, the doctors involved and I heard some attitudes and perspectives around mental health that worried us.

A huge piece of my anxiety that went public was my fear of flying. I had been very open about this fear. I’d had a winning season at Iowa State. I had voiced my fear of flying, but I had never said that I couldn’t fly, and there was never evidence that I couldn’t fly or that I didn’t fly. It was such a unique aspect of my story on top of the mental health and anxiety already —which athletes didn’t talk about—and I’m in a sport where people fly a lot, and I’m saying I don’t like to fly, it became the talking point when I was drafted. Them it became what the league and media used as a scapegoat to avoid policy conversation. Initially they wanted to settle the flying part when we started to have this mental health conversation in private. Basically, what they thought was, “This is all about this kid not liking to fly. We address the flying. We’re home free.” And I’m in the room going, “No, guys, you don’t even understand exactly what it is I’m talking about, your starting points around mental health are off. Let me tell you how I know they’re off, which are now verifiable, and then we’ll move forward with more trust and understanding than we began with. This’ll probably be a really huge moment for all of us by way of the NBA and this greater conversation around mental health.” Didn’t go that way.

Cooper: Why not?

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White: In these meetings, I was saying, “Listen, you want to address the flying? Let’s just move through the flying.” Often times you have to knock down the first pin for people to be able to say, “OK, there are still pins up” because people have a propensity to look for cookie-cutter solutions. They wanted to address the flying. I said, “OK, cool. How we did it at Iowa State was, I flew every time I had to, and I drove sometimes, if possible. I suggested we should probably do that. And if I’m going to drive, I should probably drive an RV or some type of bus that allows me to lie down and stretch out so I’m not just cramped up in the car driving for six or seven hours, just for the preservation of the physical aspect of travel.” All of the doctors agreed with that. They all said, “This is reasonable. He can easily drive from Minnesota to Chicago, Chicago to Milwaukee, Milwaukee to Cleveland, Cleveland to Indiana. This is cool. DC to Philly, Philly to New York, New York to Jersey, Jersey to Boston. This is all good.” They all recommended that it be done that was and it was a reasonable request.

By this time, the whole conversation had already surfaced in the media and there was an undertone around “accommodation.” The spirit of the conversation went legal quick. The jargon went legal. Slowly journalists were bringing up an important conversation about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and whether this was a reasonable or unreasonable accommodation, what constitutes a “workplace” and does the NBA meet that criteria. More, are collectively bargaining agreements subject to federal law. The doctors who were involved were aware of this conversation, obviously, because the issue had gone so public, so they were saying, “This is a reasonable accommodation.” They were trying to talk in terms that would appease the system’s fear of the legality of it. The doctors were saying, “This is a reasonable accommodation. The kid should be able to drive whenever possible. That’s not a big deal. People drive places all the time. Here’s how he should travel, and that’s it.”

This is when a really big issue came into play. The NBA—the Houston Rockets, on the face of it, said they would agree to it. But they didn’t do it without push back. The next time I heard from the organization regarding the matter, the general manager told us that the NBA said if they provided me with a bus, the Rockets would be penalized in upwards of millions of dollars and other potential measures, because the NBA would consider providing the bus as a salary cap infringement. That’s when I went, “Whoa!” I already had apprehension because I understood the underlying dynamic at play between the NBA and its players. I grew up around the game, around NBA players, around players who dealt with issues that were undiagnosed, and I understood the culture of how those things are either dismissed or weaponized.

You saw a lot of that dynamic and interplay with Allen Iverson. He was obviously dealing with a lot of issues but never went on the record and talked about them in a technical or medical sense. He did in a way, but he never specifically talked about particular diagnosis. Regardless, you could tell there were issues. Alcohol and marijuana were a part of it, emotional struggles, overall stress and pressure, and probably trauma, he was locked up in prison before he even went to Georgetown. With prison these things are usually on the table. As they are for us all. So I saw that as a young kid—not to mention Eddie Griffin, who in was known to have alcohol issues, ended up driving drunk one night and drove his car into an train, burning his entire body to a crisp when I was around 13 years old. Stories like that stick with you.

That happened right here with the Minnesota Timberwolves, my home town, so I was aware of these dynamics. So when I came into my own diagnosis of mental health, I was like, “Whoa!” and a light switch came on for these types of things that I had witnessed.

Back to the negotiations, the NBA was saying that accommodating this medical condition would be seen as a salary cap infringement. Now, my mind goes, “Oh, shit! We need to take a closer look at the policy.” Upon doing that, we found that not only was there not any section related specifically to mental health, there wasn’t a single paragraph.

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So mental health wasn’t just a ghost in policy. It didn’t exist. This was a big issue. Initially I just thought, “OK, there’s no way that they’ve overlooked it.” That was my initial intuition. “There’s no way they’ve overlooked mental health, especially given the drug and alcohol policy, or better said, the drug cleanup of the NBA, which was one of the hallmarks of David Stern’s tenure as the commissioner. This obviously came on the back of a cocaine wave in the ’80s and a lot of bad media around such dynamics with players using drugs. He “cleaned up” the brand. So I was very skeptical that they had overlooked mental health, and I was not sold on what the common theme was at the time, the consensus about mental health being this new topic. That’s probably the most salient point in this whole discussion. Mental health wasn’t a new topic then and certainly isn’t a new and emerging topic now. This mental health topic has been around for quite some time, people are just starting to talk about it more formally in the public square.

But the formal progress that has been made on the issue on the medical and psychological side has been for many many decades. So I’m sitting here like, “OK, there’s no way they could have overlooked this. But let’s just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did.” The first thing I recommended was, “Create a document that allows the physical injuries and illnesses framework to be inclusive of mental health. That way we have something to go off of. Now, obviously mental health is different, and we’re going to have to engage it differently, but, ultimately, it’s the same in needing acknowledgement and policy. Determine that mental health is one of the core components of overall health, along with orthopedic injury, and if you should have any traditional illnesses.”

That was my first suggestion, and there was already a precedent of doing that in federal law. That’s part of the reason why the ADA came along, and Senator Wellstone put into play the Wellstone Act, which called for insurers to have parity in how they insured mental illness treatment versus physical health treatment.

Cooper: Right.

Royce White speaking about mental health
Royce White speaking about mental health

White: As a side note, they didn’t like that I knew that. I could tell their position was that for me to even speak this way was considered audacious. For me to even question the policies, to speak about federal policy or Senator Wellstone, seemed like a deep betrayal to them.

When I suggested that we create an addendum that would bring mental health into parity. They said, “No. There’s no way we’re doing that.” And the more interesting piece was, some of the reasons they cited, they said, “Mental health can’t be measured the same way as physical injuries, and ultimately if we put a mental health policy in place for the entire league, basically players will fake it and still get paid.” That sent up another red flag. (laughs) As we went on through this conversation, I’m noticing, “Ding, ding, ding, ding. You guys are a little bit more off than I thought you were before.” What they basically tried to convey to the public that I was just a young kid who was pretentious and asking for special treatment. I was being unreasonable. I was a head case, and that this was all about me not wanting to fly and trying to avoid my responsibilities and obligations as a contracted player in the NBA.

About two years later, another player would come out and talk about his struggles. He actually retired early in the middle of a $40 million contract, and in his story, which was covered by ESPN, the GM is quoted as saying, “We don’t know shit about mental health, and we’re not doing a good job of looking for the right answers.” I went to my owner and asked that we invest money in mental health because I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t have the training, the wherewithal to navigate those types of situations with these players on top of everything else that I’m doing. And the owner told me, “Hey, I just gave this player $30 million worth of mental health.” That is a real quote. So I guess maybe I wasn’t they conman they suggested.

Two years later, DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love came forward and spoke about their struggles, and then there was just this outpouring, because now it’s cool. Now it’s en vogue. You see Kevin Love go on The Wire or you see DeMar DeRozan’s story go viral. And now you have a chain reaction where all the players go, “Hey, if I talk about this issue, too, maybe I’ll get a cover story.”

Cooper: (laughs)

White: Not to say it wasn’t genuine, not to say that those two or myself didn’t open a gate, but when it starts to get that type of public attention, there’s always the potential for people to be drawn to the attention. Maybe not completely understanding the policy paradigm? As well as the healing of being transparent. What was interesting is that there was a lot of players who came forward, and then ESPN did a feature this past summer where even coaches and general managers, refs and the rest started saying they were dealing with the issues. And then it became clear, like, “Oh, man, this is a real crisis! This isn’t just a few guys going, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m dealing with that, too.’ There’s an actual crisis in this ecosystem.”

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It takes you all the way back to when I was talking about these issues publicly and saying, “The mental health conversation is one that transcends basketball. The statistics that we have for the greater society would probably map onto basketball well, but I would assume that those statistics are off in general, and that more players have mental illnesses than we could possibly imagine as well as the rest of the society. This is the biggest social issue we face as a species, and you guys can’t even fathom how many people are dealing with these issues.”

So five years later, after they didn’t invite me to any training camps or resign me, they basically tried to exile and blackball me for talking publicly. Now they were publicly forced to show an empathetic attitude toward mental health. So they did it. Because the NBA has a monopoly, and if you want to watch basketball, there’s nobody else you can turn to, nobody will really challenge the NBA on, well, much of anything. Not only that, I’m not so convinced that we, as a society realize the plethora of social issues that will call for a huge self-reflection involved to challenge the NBA on a piece like that.

Now, if an owner came out and called one of the players a “nigger,” hell would be raised raised. I’m pretty sure there would be riots, in the climate we live in. Maybe not though. But talking about mental health and what comes with it and looking into the mirror and saying, “We all have mental health. What’s going on with mine? How am I navigating my own in my life?” That’s a whole different type of situation for people to engage in.

The NBA was able to create a diversion, “We think this is an incredibly important topic and we don’t want young people to feel like there’s a stigma. We just want our players to be able to say what they want. We’re trying to put a policy in place.” Meanwhile, six years ago, I said all of those things, and the commissioner himself now walks out to the podium and literally repeated the things I said word for word in a letter correspondence to him and to the League. But he won’t mention my name at all. He hasn’t said it once since this whole thing started, and even more concerning is that no journalist has even asked my name. You know, you’ve got the NBA All-Star Weekend, you’ve got the beginning of the season, you’ve got all these Q&As where you get these sound bites and quotes of what Adam Silver said about the upcoming season. There hasn’t been one reporter who said, “Hey, you guys are talking a lot about mental health. What happened with Royce White?” That hasn’t happened, because there’s an unspoken agreement—from what I’ve heard from different media people—that I’m nuclear, and if you mention me, then you run the risk of getting your credentials taken away by the NBA. That’s the type of thing I’ve been battling for the last five years.

Cooper: Can you comment on Charles Barkley calling player Kyrie Irving the most miserable player?

White: Adam Silver was at a Q&A with sports columnist Bill Simmons at the Sloan Sports Conference for Analytics, which ironically was founded by Daryl Morey, the general manager who drafted me. And Bill Simmons was in charge of Grantland which one of his writers (Chuck Closterman) ha written a piece back when this all started six years ago that basically, “Hey, this kid Royce is going way overboard about this mental health thing, thinking that all of you people have mental illnesses and you don’t know it, and he’s worried about insuring mental health on top of this, how off the rail is this kid?” That’s what the article was trying to say. When you go back and read it now, my words seem pathetically prophetic. It’s because of all of the backlash and apprehension that the media and fans put forward, but they were really just ideas like, “Hey, guys, people are using marijuana, a lot.” There’s even a line in this article where I say, “Ask David Stern how many guys are dealing with marijuana addiction. Those people have mental illnesses.” And the Closterman’s responds like, “So if you have an addiction, that’s mental illness?” And I’m like, “Uh, yeah, technically and federally.” In every medical criteria that we know. It’s like, these things were already in place.

Anyway, Bill Simmons was connected to the initial misinformation. And then you’ve got Adam Silver, who worked underneath David Stern at the time and would later take over as commissioner of the NBA. All three of them are represented, sitting together and a conversation takes place that you can watch on YouTube, where Adam Silver talks about the players being unhappy. He said, “There’s a real unhappiness with these players. They’re genuinely unhappy.” It looks like a revelation he’s come to. He says, “I’ve been sitting down with these players a lot individually, and they actually seem unhappy. I think we live in an age of anxiety. I think it’s social media.”

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I’m watching this thinking to myself, You guys are still trying to cut corners. You’ve gone from, “The 21-year-old kid (me) was right, but we as the NBA can’t acknowledge that this issue was already in our face.” Now you don’t even have the courage to say, “This issue includes not only our young people and millennials, it includes the whole league from top to bottom.” Adam is playing a sneaky lawyer word game there. He’s trying to establish the league’s knowledge of onset for the current mental health crisis as being in conjunction with the social media boom of the last 3 years. So they can play like the deer in the headlights and also conveniently make it seem like a player specific issue even though the refs, coaches and GMs spoke about their struggles as well. Keeping the whole reformational conversation away from where it’s really going to be the hardest to stomach – in his own office and the brokers he represents. This “age of anxiety” as Adam Silver put it isn’t being caused by social media, it’s exacerbated by it. These issues are prevalent in any age group of people that may not necessarily be on those platforms. Although in increasingly it’s not clear that there are any age groups that are not on the platforms.” (laughs) And especially not those that would be working in the upper management of the NBA, because all of those people are on those platforms. That’s a fact. The even more concerning thing about Adam Silver’s comment in that moment is that in the NBA specifically, if social media plays a such big role in this generational unhappiness and why these players are so discontent, despite all of the goods and glamor it looks like they have from the outside, it prompts the question as to why the NBA has increased its social media initiatives tenfold?

Cooper: That’s funny and ironic!

White: (laughs) Which is what they’ve done. Anyway, that’s where the Barkley comment stems from. Basically here’s a older black man speaking about the comments of an older white man—and he’s caught in a generational paradox. He’s caught in the cross section of where he has his issues with the establishment or with whatever the problems were with the NBA between the players and the establishment in his era, which weren’t these mental health-type of conversations explicity. They still were, just talked about in quiet or with different titles. So he’s like, “That unhappiness that they’re talking about, that ain’t nothin’. We had issues,” or shit like that. Basically, he said, “What do these players have to be unhappy about? They’re getting paid more money than we ever did.” He missed the mark on what this conversation is about. He misinforms the conversation around whether or not financial security can act as a buffer for these mental health troubles. There’s no evidence that that’s the case.

So all in all, there’s a real misguided, misinformed, and manipulated conversation or perspective around just how much of a crisis this mental health issue is. For me, the reason to bring it up in the NBA and the reason to continue to push on it is that here you have the corporate world’s watering hole. It’s the social watering hole of our generation as well. You have a place where everybody comes to get a little bit of something, I don’t care if it’s ownership, sponsorship, ambassadorship, employment, sneakers, basketball itself, the team gossip or what ball players date which women.

You can watch that play out on all of these social media platforms and other media platforms. There’s a reason why the NBA is walking around with a such a big stick, that has what would be good journalists very afraid to challenge a very blatantly corrupt hierarchy. That is the proper place for the mental health conversation to be engaged, acknowledged, identified, disseminated, and reformed, because it’s where everybody is, and that’s in large part for a lot of the wrong reasons. In my view, in order to progress and navigate a social issue, it’s important to be able to sort out where it’s hottest at. It does nothing for us to dance around the edges. That’s what we do with most social issues, and that’s why we haven’t made great progress on most of them.

For me it was like, “You guys don’t have any clear view of what mental health is. You don’t respect that mental health is a valid field of science. You don’t respect the idea that people with disabilities not only should be treated fairly and inclusively, but that they actually have value and things to offer. Sometimes they have things to offer that people without those disabilities wouldn’t have, or people with lower-level unidentifiable disabilities wouldn’t have.” A lot of these ideas are just nonstarters as we move forward as a society, with the emergence of these issues being diagnosed more and more as our instruments become better, with the emergence of more people starting to have these issues, and with the emergence of medical criteria, including things like the autism spectrum, for example. And the autism spectrum continuing to grow.

Cooper: So what’s next, in your opinion?

Royce White

White: Well, this is the giant at our doorstep. I think for a company like the NBA, which is just 450 players and some managers and coaches and owners, not only is it the proper pilot for the mental health conversation because of its watering hole implications of the corporate world, but it’s a manageable sample size. We’re talking about providing the players with the proper attitude, so that any support would actually be support in terms of mental health-related issues, and maybe revising the alcohol policy and putting a limit on it. I just don’t think fans shouldn’t be able to come to the games and get drunk in front of their or other people’s children and be belligerent or leave the game drunk and then drive. That’s it.

And we can’t do that? It’s like, “What about the alcohol relationship?” Nobody’s going to talk about what a contradiction or conflict of interest it is for the NBA to oversee mental health reform in their league, without having to address the alcohol elephant in the room. Everybody’s like, “Oh, well, that’s going to mess with the revenue.” People say that offhandedly, as if the revenue being disrupted is just categorically a reason for them not to address it.

That’s a big problem. That whole modality is maybe the crisis of our time. But beyond that, I don’t even see that it affects them that much in the grand scheme. The NBA is moving to screen and television content and they’re making more money on that than they are at arenas. Not only that, it’s not clear that the game of basketball minus the alcohol wouldn’t still thrive, because if you’re there as a purist of the sport, the more drunk you get, the more you’re not really there for the sport, you’re there to be drunk, as is the case with anything we include alcohol with.

So it begs the question of how much money do they actually need? If this conversation isn’t important enough as a social issue for all of us to do our part, to cut off the fourth quarter of beer, we’re f#cked!

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Cooper: Especially when you peel back everything and see the greed that exists.

White: (laughs) It’s just the fourth quarter, no beer. To be honest, there’s not that many people drinking 3 whole beers in those arenas anyway. So you say, “None after the third quarter.” Maybe have them cut off, like, mid-third quarter. Or none after half-time. That way you’d have two full quarters to let the alcohol get through your system before you get in your car and drive out of there.

Secondly you could say no one can have over three drinks. If you’re having more than three drinks, you’re there to get drunk, and that’s not what we’re here to do. That’s not what we want to provide. Uphold the role model ethos of sports that you throw on the players. You’re only making an ethical and moral statement around the upper fifth, you could say, the upper one-tenth or one-twentieth of people who are drinking alcohol. You’re speaking to them morally with policy, but it’s also making a moral and ethical statement for everybody else by saying there are limits—that we do view alcohol as a substance that we need a policy around. You don’t come here to get drunk and harass our players. You don’t get to be belligerent in front of our adolescent patrons.

If you can’t let that money go, I have real concerns about how we engage any of these social issues around the greed aspect. I’m not anti-capitalist. I’m not a socialist by definition, but I do have a real concern if I’m in a situation with other capitalists and there’s a shining opportunity for us to do something in good faith around the greed aspect, and we spit on that. I have a big problem with that. All while weaponizing the entire moral and ethical framework against the players whenever you need to, whether the player’s an asshole, not a team player, drinks too much, smokes too much weed, and is foul mouthed in front of the fans on TV, we’re fining him $100,000.

Here are players who have to be sober most of the time—although I guess you could say there’s a question there—doing their job in an environment where there are no mental health policies, no adequate mental support system, and they walk into an arena where 15,000 fans have free reign to get drunk and shout crazy shit at them. And you don’t think that’s going to go off the rails from time to time? Let’s not talk about how unhappy the players are, let’s applaud them for going out there and turning the other cheek so often that it’s only every once in a while that we hear a player cuss out a fan or say something vulgar. Just have some understanding and realize that the environment they’re in is categorically sick, and the people who run it have every design to keep the focus aimed at any culpability that they can cast onto the players while taking it off of themselves.

Cooper: At some point, the litigation and cost of allowing people to get drunk and drive will become an unavoidable problem.

White: There were multiple layers to my initial intuition as to why this felt important. I wrote about this in my first book, which was based on an open letter that I wrote to the League this past year. It’s just a 60-pager, and what I said is that delayed identification and intervention always deteriorates or hinders a potential for effective results. And we see, ironically, this play out in the medical world first-hand. It’s a common trajectory we see in all of our social institutions. And I bring it up because we can’t keep setting up these social structures around death ams litigation in order to create the proper reform. That is the issue here. It’s not about mental health; it’s not even about disabilities. Those are just the entry points to the much deeper-rooted issue that we cannot afford to continue with a system, a methodology that when the litigation, deaths and costs come, then we do the right thing. That will not work for us. People speak of things like the end of the world, plague-level disease, running out of fresh water or climate change, as far-fetched fears. I think we’re in an existential age where people who are speaking out sternly about the future of humanity are very tuned into that long game. It can be overdone but is not to be dismissed out of hand.

I think the existential works like that, and I think it’s cumulative for us as a species. Your existential awareness is combined with mine and with those of the past, and there’s an interesting argument for those in the future as well. There’s a theory that re-emerges in our stories, about humans, our minds and time. If time works the way we theorize that it does, the future us, the future humanity, and their angst and experiences may be sending back messages through the consciousness. Which is very scary for people. If you even accept it as a potentiality, then you’re moved to treat it as a certainty.

Regardless if you take the future ones out of the equation, we know that it works that way from people present and past. We see that in chicken coops. The chicken, you could fly a metal object over a chicken coop and they’ll ignore it, but as soon as you put a hawk around a group of chickens that have never seen a hawk, they freak out. That’s DNA, genetic coding. There’s a real angst that exists right now where people are saying, “Look, we will not survive if we continue to let our process be build, build, build haphazardly, build, build, build negligently, build, build, build without due diligence, and we’ll just wait and stagnate until the deaths , the litigation and the costs come — then we’ll make the change.” What that turns into down the line, obviously, is, “We’ll wait until the last minute and it’ll be too late.” That’s their mistake. That’s what people like Stephen Hawking are saying. That’s what Revelations say in the Bible. These things are not new ideas.

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So I was saying, “No, guys. We need to check this at the door. We can’t wait till somebody gets sued.” And sure enough, one of my friends who played with me in the G-League, which is the minor league system that they shipped me off to when I started to talk about this issue, one of the players who played with me in that G-League system shot himself in the head.

Cooper: Oh, man!

White: So here you have the situation where there could have potentially been litigation. If I were his mother, I would say, “Listen, my kid was in the NBA. You guys didn’t have proper mental health protocols. He was probably dealing with those issues back then, and you guys were negligent, Royce said that you guys didn’t have any policies. He let you know it. People within your league let you know it. And you guys turned a blind eye, and now you’re coming out in public and admitting that you didn’t do it the right way, but my son shot himself.”

Not good!

Another gloomy perspective is that there is good evidence that putting these things in place increases productivity. (laughs) Waiting for the death and litigation to start the change is a horrible beat. That’s backwards. But now let’s turn it upside-down. This issue that we’re talking about (mental health) already shows promise of increasing profit. If the changes and the progress that increase profit don’t encourage these greedy gatekeepers to do the work they need to, when I said we’re fucked before, now it looks like we’re double-fucked. “You guys won’t even make the proper changes for the things that’ll make you more money!” Because a bottom it’s not even about the money. The first order entry point is that people don’t want to have to look in the mirror. It’s about pride, ego and vanity. Those exist with the money out of the equation

The core problem is that the mental health conversation causes you to look in the mirror and go, “Whoa, wait a minute! How much coffee have I had today? How much sleep am I getting? How much water am I getting? How do I handle my relationship with my wife? How am I treating my employees? What’s my relationship like with my boss? What’s my relationship like with my own internal dialogue?” That’s what people don’t want to do. And on top of building a structure of hit-and-react, we’ve built a structure that systematically de-incentivizes you from anything reflective. We love the distraction. Our whole shit is based on it. It’s a very grim story in that regard. And in the NBA, it’s a weird place for such a paragon to emerge. It’s like, here’s a situation where you guys have human commodities. So if you increase the wellness, you could say the happiness, the functionality of these human commodities, then your products will get better. But you guys won’t even make changes for that.

Cooper: Usually change comes from several voices. And the continued drum beat from players, families, advocates, the medical community—

White: Those are the dynamics at play. At some point, we, as a species and a society, have to leapfrog all of our defects. Not all, but some of them, and definitely the blatant ones. That’s why they need to teach more Carl Jung in school. That’s why psychology, mental health and philosophy need to make a roaring comeback in the school system.

Cooper: Yes!

White: What we should be doing is exposing young people to the tools to be able to identify when those mechanisms manifest. Even if you’re an owner, you’re going, “Whoa, this guy’s making change, and I’m averse to change. I just need status quo.” This is the dynamic at work. You would see that slowly but surely, just from me being able to identify my anxiety symptoms and how they’re coming on, I’m better able to prepare myself to navigate them.

That’s just 101. If I know that rapid heart rate is a sign that a panic attack is either on the way or in process, now I can get myself to a space mentally and then maybe a space physically where I can accept my circumstance and better navigate through it. If I don’t even know that, I’m going to think I’m having a heart attack, and then I’ll be all out of sorts.

Cooper: Are you working with a psychiatrist and taking meds?

Royce White MMA training

White: Oh, yeah. I’ve been on medication before, but I’ve managed to phase off of daily medication. I’m not anti-pharmaceuticals. I think they’ve got a pretty difficult shtick because we’re working with the end point of suicide, homicide or death, which I think is another important piece. There’s the reality of this whole paradigm. Those things have epistemological issues to them. I get upset every time I hear people on the right or left say, “Oh, big pharma this, big pharma that. We’re over-medicating kids.” I’m like, “Hold on, guys. Maybe we’re mis-medicating kids, but there’s no evidence that we’re over-medicating them, because we’re under-diagnosing them.” You can’t have over-medication through an under-diagnosis. And if we do have that, we need to really investigate what’s going on. But I don’t think that’s the case.

This is a very tough issue, and we haven’t spent the right resources or energy we need on the issue, and people are getting less than optimal results when it comes to medication and prescriptions. But again, if you know anybody who has profound schizophrenia or bipolar-type symptoms, you know that those medications for those disorders keep them functional. If you’ve ever had panic attacks or great depression in your life to where you needed to be medicated, you know that those medications help greatly.

The question would be, do they also push some people over the edge? The short answer is, probably. But you’re working against the starting point of, if you didn’t medicate them at all, would they even survive? Those things are all very intricate and complex issues that need time and energy. We can’t wait on the death and the legislation. We’ve got to fast-track it, because more and more people are needing medication who don’t know it. They’re scared because we can’t give them any surety. There’s too much conversation that medication is bad.

Growing up in the black community, there was a real stigma that the government was trying to target the black community through medication. That’s a real old, but common, idea. If our government is going to target underprivileged or underrepresented communities, it would easily be through a thing like medication or shots. Black people have an aversion to doctors and hospitals in general, much less mental health medication. And then you stratify out from there. That’s just the black community or minority communities. But the reality is that seven out of 10 suicides in America are white males. We see there how it’s not a race issue. We have big issues. They’re not to be identified in these small groups, and that’s another reason why the mental health conversation is a great conversation, a needed one, because it blurs the color line, the gender line, the socioeconomic line. It blurs all of them, properly. It should blur them.

Cooper: Are you advocating for these issues now?

White: Yes, I have my website, Anxious Minds. We’re supposed to launch later this year. I’m being careful around launching it and putting certain information out, because I think there’s a lot going on within the mental health community around what our message should be. But we’re launching this year. I feel comfortable with our message now, but I do public speaking on this issue.

Cooper: Do you work with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) or any other organizations?

White: NAMI, I haven’t worked with them too closely. NAMI has chapters, so I have the support of some of the NAMI chapters, but with NAMI national, we haven’t seen eye-to-eye. I felt like the fight that I took on with the NBA was a big one for the mental health community. The NBA, who were in on some of those meetings, said, “Listen, we don’t see mental health as a valid field of science. We don’t view it as a core component of overall health. We don’t have to give it priority. We don’t have to pay attention to it, and we damn sure don’t have to give policy” That was a slap in the face to the work that NAMI is doing.

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Imagine how many families that NAMI is helping who are avid fans of the NBA. For them not to make a public statement is a clear sign of that propensity towards greed or money or for opportunities. They don’t want to cut themselves off from profiting from the NBA as a nonprofit.

Cooper: Wait, NAMI wasn’t willing to stand up with you?

White: Nobody was.

Cooper: That’s discouraging!

White: No, none of the nonprofits.

Cooper: That’s sad to hear, because NAMI is such a grassroots organization.

White: We’re faced with some very powerfully constructed mechanisms and institutions. The NBA is a sexy, sexy sport, man! And it’s a sexy game, and the business around it, you can easily see how a group like NAMI would just lie in the wings and go, “Hey, look, we’re not going to burn that bridge.”

Cooper: That’s not supposed to be what NAMI’s about. That’s not sexy of NAMI.

White: (laughs) That was my point!

Cooper: Have you done anything with Legends—the National Basketball Retired Players Association?

White: No, I’m radioactive for the whole NBA community. The players don’t even speak about me. I’m “that guy.” As if plays are told, “You know you’re standing with us will be in question if you mention that guy’s name.”

Cooper: So even if they’re retired, you’re still too radioactive for them?

White: First of all, financially, the biggest threat is that the retired players actually come together and make the case that these things were neglected and bring a suit forward. That’s the real fear.

Cooper: Do you know Spencer Hayward?

White: I do.

Cooper: Have you talked to him helping you draft something to get everyone to sign up and make some movement?

White: Again, anything that comes to policy or things like that, they keep me away from, because it’s been made clear how the League feels about me and dealing with me on these issues. Even the union, when they went to put their mental health program together this summer, they hired a mental health director, they hired a player liaison for mental health, and they hired Keyon Dooling. I like him and he’s not a bad guy, but you can tell how in-depth I’ve been on the topic.

Cooper: Yes.

White: If they would have hired somebody, it probably should have been me. But they just know that the League isn’t going to play ball like that with me, because they know I’m going to take the conversation to where it needs to go, and they’re totally fine with having a conversation in a place where it’ll be non-confrontational.

Cooper: In the beginning of our talk, you said there were a couple of stories you wanted to tell.

White: There is one. Before basketball season starts, the NBA has a rookie transition program. It was at the rookie transition program that I heard Chris Harris’s story, who was an ex-NBA player who had had severe issues with drug addiction, and I think heroin was one of the components of that story. I heard him speak, and in hearing him speak, I heard such a nice introduction to the anxiety-depression dynamic and it’s relationship, and not the drug piece. I’ve never been a drug user, or even an alcohol user, but the type of emotions and experiences he would describe are obviously anxiety and depression and things like that.

What shocked me was that there were no seminars around mental health. The reason I wanted to point out that story was because even before we had this conversation around mental health and policies, I had an intuition from some of those experiences that the mental health part was extremely lacking. But it also gave me the insight that mental health was not new, that it had been gerrymandered. I remember a doctor, in 2001, addressed the World Health Organization and said that mental health would be the greatest issue we would face going forward, that mental illness and all the components that went along with mental health would be something that we have to address and that science and ethics have shown us the path, and it’ll be up to governments and institutions to make it a priority. That was 2001! I wasn’t drafted until 2013! (laughs)

And I just couldn’t believe that in 2001, the conversation made its way to the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland because Senator Wellstone created the Wellstone Act in the ’90s.

Cooper: Because of the parity, there were a lot of people who were upset about what was happening with mental health and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and health insurance.

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White: That was the story. There was also the other story that we were in these conversations, and there was evidence of them having a clear misunderstanding of what mental health was at a fundamental level, not the level I’m talking to you about, but at a fundamental level, such as family practitioners can’t prescribe psychiatric medicine. That’s such a detached statement from the modern world, I don’t even know how to approach it without sounding condescending. No, they do. Family practitioners prescribe the majority of psychiatric medications. People can’t afford psychiatrists. (laughs) Everybody’s family practitioner can prescribe Prozac or anti-anxiety medication. They’re not getting it from psychologists or psychiatrists. Just little things like that were clear signs that they weren’t oriented properly in the conversation.

The only question for me was—was it intentional or was it misinformation? And as the conversation went on, it became more clear that there was some serious evidence that it was intentional; they were masquerading misinformation. What was really the case was that the topic was so in the shadows on a global level that they could gerrymander without any real pushback from the public. That’s the real story. “Nobody really talks enough about mental health to push back on us like that anyway. Senator Wellstone is dead, or else he’d have been at our front door with signs and the whole Senate.” That’s what happened. “These guys just don’t know.” They knew. They knew very well the implication of what I was saying. You’re talking about very brilliant lower Manhattan lawyers who are well-informed and well-resourced.

Cooper: What are you doing now?

White: I’m transitioning and acquiring a mixed martial arts pursuit. I think there’s a great stigma around mixed martial arts. I’ve always loved it. I’m a bona fide athlete, so I’m confident in my abilities to be able to transition to the sport. Mixed martial arts athletes have a bad rep of being reckless, crazy guys. But it’s much more about the strength and discipline and methodological learning and systemic application. It’s the human body contact form of chess. It’s a great sport. It’s a great game. I’m excited about endeavoring in it. I’m excited about the platform. I think Mohammad Ali is one of my single greatest idols in the sports world. In the solo game, you have the potential to speak truth to power in a different way than you do in the team sport game.

In team sports, they can always gerrymander. Your authenticity is a distraction from your teammates. In solo sports they can’t do that. They can say you’re a distraction from the benefit of the field of competition, like they tried to do with Serena Williams and the banning of her black cat suit at the majors this year. People are kind of like, “Oh, come on, she can wear whatever the fuck she wants to wear.” In a team sport, there’s a real backlash against that. Can you imagine if LeBron came out with a different uniform?

Cooper: (laughs)

Modern Sport in America

White: Oh, my God! People would be like, “This guy is the biggest asshole since assholes were invented!” That piece I’m aware of, too. I’m ready for this next chapter in my life. I took five years. In history we’ve seen that great thought leaders, great leaders, great thinkers have always had to take time away from the public eye, a time when they’re in a mysterious place, an enigmatic place, before they re-emerge and are able to create the thing they want. The last six years has been a tough fight, but I think it was necessary for me to transition into this next phase where we can make some leapfrog improvements.

Cooper: How long have you been training for this?

White: About six, seven months.

Cooper: Are you a degreed belt?

White: No, no. I’m raw.

Cooper: Some of these guys have years of different—well, you know what you’ve against.

White: They’re pedigreed, that’s for sure.

Cooper: And do you know at all if you’ll be able to take a hit?

White: I’m pretty confident that I can. There’s a big difference between getting hit in the street and getting hit by another 250-pound athlete who’s trained in how to do it the right way.

Cooper: Right. Athletes who knows how to knock someone out.

White: We’ll see. It’s either a hard no or a hard yes.

Cooper: Or a hard head, hopefully.

White: (laughs) Yeah, right!

Cooper: Do you know when you might have your first bout?

White: Not 100 percent positive yet, but it’ll be this year.

Cooper: Oh, really? That soon—wow!

White: I turned 28 in April, so I wanted to get one or two in while I’m 28 years old.

Cooper: And they’ll put you up against someone who is equally naïve to the sport?

White: Probably not. I’m a pro athlete, so I can’t really go amateur. It’s just an incredible opportunity for my story to be reformed and re-emerge and reshaped into one that is a testament of will and determination and taking your life into your own hands. When you have a rightful claim that the higher-ups have corrupted the pathways and locked the doors to the gates. Those are the risks I’ll have to take, and I always knew that I would.

Cooper: Had you ever thought of playing oversees?

White: I played in Canada for two years. I was the MVP. We won two championships in the pro league. The oversees game is just as corrupt, if not more. FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball Association) is off the chains. I said when I made the announcement that challenging the status quo is one thing, but changing it takes something different entirely. I don’t think the change would come through a watered-down version of my own sport. I think it’s necessary that it’s something completely different.

Cooper: What was your major in college?

Mental Health and the NBA

White: My major was liberal studies. I’m going back to finish in psychology.

Cooper: That’s interesting. Good call! Do you know anything about the UN’s CRPD?

White: No.

Cooper: CRPD stands for the Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities. Basically, it’s ADA-esque, and almost all countries now have signed and ratified it. The hard part is the implementation. Section 25 talks about mental health.

White: Oh, wow!

Cooper: This year, I think we’ll be putting on a panel about mental health at the UN.

White: Oh, cool!

Cooper: If I find out that we’re going to have a panel on mental health, I’ll let you know. It’s in New York. Would you be able to make it out there?

White: Absolutely. I’ll be there, for sure.

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