Teams Must Reevaluate Mental Health Issues in Wake of Houston's Royce White Saga

Dan LevyNational Lead WriterNovember 15, 2012

When Royce White was taken by the Houston Rockets with the 16th pick in the first round of the NBA draft, he could not have imagined things unraveling so fast. He couldn't have foreseen that he would end up in the D-League just weeks after the season began, having yet to play a regular-season game for the team that drafted him.

Unfortunately, with White unable to balance the demands put on an NBA player with his well-documented issues with anxiety, that's exactly where he is.

In the wake of Houston's decision and White's very public explanation of his side via Rockets message boards and Twitter, people are left wondering what both sides could have done differently—what any team could do differently—to make this situation better for all involved.

There is no easy answer. Well, there is a pretty easy answer, but it won't be a popular one: Teams should avoid signing players who aren't both physically and mentally able to do the job. 

White has specific issues with flying, and the D-League all but eliminates long-distance travel (and takes much of the media attention away) so he can focus just on basketball. It is every player's dream to play in the NBA. Even if the D-League is a better fit right now, for a guy to be drafted in the first round and dropped off the roster this quickly, White's dream has become a bit of a nightmare. 

Living with anxiety issues is a daily nightmare for millions of people. Sure, there is medication, but if you have ever lived through a panic attack, you know that there isn't a pill in the world you think will get you out of it. (Note: there has been some debate about this point. Of course there is a pill in the world that can get you out of a panic attack. I was speaking from personal experience in how it feels at the time.)

Anxiety can be extremely debilitating, and for a player in the NBA—or any professional sport—to balance the physical and mental rigors of that lifestyle while dealing with anxiety issues is commendable. 

White made sure every team knew about his issues before the draft, even at the expense of his stock. Before and after being picked by the Rockets, he has been upfront about his issues with the team, media and fans. 

The only thing White has done wrong in this situation is publicize the recent fight with the Rockets. He had no business airing private team matters on a fan message board and should never tweet his concerns out to followers, even if he feels the Rockets are not doing what they agreed to do.

Players have been cut for less than that, and if White weren't dealing with a sensitive issue (and the Rockets hadn't invested a first-round pick on him just this year), one suspects the team would have already cut ties with him just for speaking out. If he is eventually cut, his public outburst will not earn him any favor with the other NBA teams thinking about taking a chance on him. 

The truth is, Houston never should have drafted him unless it was OK with the fact he may disappear at times or not be able to travel to some road games. If the Rockets have dropped White to the D-League this quickly, they're admitting they made a mistake and should cut ties as soon as possible, both for their sake and the sake of the player.

While mental health issues affect a person's day-to-day life differently than physical health issues, professional sports teams have to look at them the same way. Would Houston have drafted a player with a chronic knee injury that allows him to play most nights, but occasionally—and totally randomly—locks up on him and renders him ineffective or unable to participate at all?

If you agree it's irresponsible for a team to invest millions of dollars on a player with physical limitations precluding him from being able to survive in an NBA environment, why wouldn't that same level of irresponsibility apply to someone with mental limitations as well?

Before the draft, White took issue with teams comparing his ailment to off-court concerns like a criminal history or substance abuse. White likened his medical issue to cancer or heart disease more than what are commonly deemed as "character issues."

Said White (via Anthony Olivieri, Yahoo! Sports):

I don't like when that association is made. There's a lot of people out there who have an anxiety disorder and don't talk about it for that reason. People think it's a character issue and it's not.

I'm going to continue to be me, I'm going to continue to be an advocate for the mental illness community. I'll continue to talk about it and be forthcoming about it. When a person or public figure talks about it, it lets people know that haven't been diagnosed to go and get checked. You're not alone.

The thing is, White's actually wrong, or at least not totally right. Anxiety isn't like cancer, and it's not really like heart disease either. It is a lot like alcoholism, a disease to which some teams compared his mental ailment. 

People who struggle with alcoholism work every day to be normal functioning members of society and do their job the best they can, knowing that something in the back of their mind is constantly pulling them into a spiral they fear they can't escape. You don't need to be physically drinking to struggle with alcoholism, just like you don’t need to be in the middle of a panic attack to struggle with anxiety issues. 

So, if you were an NBA GM, would you spend a first-round pick on a guy who has documented problems with alcohol? If the player admitted he was working to fix the issue but told you there could be some times he knows he will relapse and miss work, would that put up a red flag, or would you sign the guy anyway in hopes you can help him work through the issue?

Are some players talented enough to look past their deficiencies? 

It doesn't matter how talented a guy is, signing a player who lives with the daily struggle of fighting substance abuse is a gamble teams must make with open eyes, or not at all. Anxiety, while a vastly different malady, should be handled the exact same way.

None of this, mind you, is to suggest the Rockets should not have drafted White, but it does mean they should have done so with the understanding that they never should have expected to actually depend on him to produce. If a team wants to roll the dice on a first-round pick they don't think they can rely upon, they reap what they sow—a cautionary tale for other teams in the same situation in the future.

The underlying point is simple: It's important to help people in all walks of life who struggle with mental anxiety, depression and other issues that therapy and medicine have begun to help.

As a society, we shouldn’t ignore the mentally ill, but from a basketball standpoint, there's no reason a team should be expected to employ someone with these issues, and if they sign someone who can't do the job they've contractually agreed to do, eventually the team has to move on. It's just that nobody thought the Rockets would move on this fast.

It's unfortunate, but it's rather understandable too. We throw around the term "mental toughness" in sports a lot these days. Is a guy "mentally tough" enough to handle the game or the media or calling plays or closing games or making a shot with the game on the line? Does he have the mental toughness to handle the NBA lifestyle, both on and off the court?

So…what if he's not mentally tough enough? What then?

If I'm the most mentally tough person on the planet (note: I am not) but I'm physically unable to play in the NBA, should a team hire me just because I can think on my feet in pressure situations? Should they sign me to a million-dollar contract because I don't have issues with flying and would show up for practice every day?

Why are physical attributes so much more important than mental ones? If a player is physically strong but mentally weak, shouldn't that be nearly as big a concern as the other way around?

Anxiety is a weakness. It's something people deal with every day and is not something to be taken lightly, but it is a mental weakness, just like a bad knee and the inability to jump over nine feet in the air are physical weaknesses. 

If any player isn't able to handle all aspects of the job, including travel, practice and media scrutiny, that should be just as important as pulling down double-digit rebounds. 

White realizes that, and he is working hard to find a balance. The Rockets, and all teams, need to find that balance when evaluating talent too.