Royce White: Houston Rockets Should Set Protocol for Mental Health Care in NBA

Bryan Kalbrosky@@BryanKalbroskyCorrespondent IDecember 31, 2012

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 21:  Royce White #30 of the Houston Rockets poses for a portrait during the 2012 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at the MSG Training Center on August 21, 2012 in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets need to stop punishing Royce White and begin to help him by establishing a protocol for mental health care in professional sports.

While he has not yet played an NBA game, the Royce White story is one of the most fascinating narratives of the 2012 NBA season. The complicated relationship that has developed between the Houston Rockets and the way that they have dealt with Royce White’s generalized anxiety disorder is exactly what made him fall from a top-five talent to Houston with the 16th pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

His recent denial to join the D-League may be an ultimate breaking point with Houston, but the real breaking point should be with how the NBA examines mental health.

White, who has been absent from the team since November 9, was back to practicing with the team this week. That, according to sources, and his assignment to the D-League were considered to be part of the process to get him back to the NBA. White, however, refused the invitation in a statement issued early Sunday afternoon, citing health issues directly related to his generalized anxiety disorder.

“I do wish to play, but I only intend to do so with the collaboration and recommendation of trained professionals,” explained White. “I have chosen not to play because the doctors and I believe it to be unsafe for unqualified Rockets front office personnel to make medical decisions, as they are not mental health professionals.”

White hopes to make himself a role model for those also coping with a similar condition to his own, even starting the hash tag #AnxietyTroopers and #BeWell on his Twitter.

"Whenever anybody in a public position comes forward and says they have any mental disorder, I always marvel at it," said Dr. Daniel Pine. "I think it's a really wonderful thing."

In recent weeks, however, White has been criticized for being so outspoken on his Twitter feed about his anxiety disorder while also being away from the team. He has been told to “man up” in regards to his fear of flight, and has been accused of exacerbating the extremities of condition in order to milk more playing time and his first shot in the NBA.

Many on Twitter and otherwise continue to neglect the definition of anxiety: “a pattern of frequent (or) constant worry and anxiety over many different activities and events.”

White’s anxiety first escalated after his best friend collapsed and needed life-saving heart surgery after running postgame sprints when the two children were only 10 years old.

Since then, White has been constantly grappling with ways to deal with his mental disability. For instance, White wished to cope with his fear of heights (specifically an extreme fear of flying that once prevented him from traveling to be recruited by college basketball legend John Calipari at the University of Kentucky) by driving in an RV from game-to-game.

"[For] people with mental illness, one of the most important things is that they have that consistency and routine,” explained White. "I'm going to make that bus feel like home so that there's a level of consistency in a job where inconsistency is very apparent because of the schedule. I'm going to try and level that out and make sure that my stress levels stay low and that my rest is regular and that my meals are regular.”

While White may not have been with the Rockets since his last RV trip to and from Memphis, he claims that the Rockets have not properly dealt with his unusual condition.

“It is true that accommodating mental health can be very tough and complex; however, sometimes the only reasonable solution to doing what is right is doing what is tough,” said White in his statement on why he chose to decline the invitation to the D-League. “To portray that the Rockets have been supportive to me is fundamentally incorrect.”

This is most indicative by the fact that White has been fined every day that he was away from the team for missed practices, games and therapy sessions, according to the Houston Chronicle. White believed this to be unfair because he was missing these games due to his documented mental illness.

"If somebody has a broken leg, you give them crutches,” White said. “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.” 

General manager Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets have come out time and time again to pledge to commitment toward the “long-term success” and support of Royce White. It seems the best way to do that would not be to send him to the D-League, but to get him the help he needs to succeed in the NBA.

“When that same athlete has a mental disorder, there is no armada of trainers, no team doctors,” William C. Rhoden wrote in the New York Times in October. “That athlete is often abandoned. For all of the current focus on traumatic brain injury as a result of concussions, mental illness, often overlooked, exists at every level of sports.”

To pretend as if the athletes do not also need this health at a professional level would be a complete and utter oversight, as the history of mental health conditions in professional sports is fairly extensive.

Zack Greinke missed the 2006 season dealing with social anxiety disorder. Keyon Dooling and 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey both admitted to sexual abuse from their childhood. Ron Artest thanked his therapist after winning the NBA championship with the Lakers.

Delonte West suffers from bipolar disorder. Herchel Walker admitted to have suffered from dissociative identity disorder. Ricky Williams suffers from social anxiety disorder. Brandon Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Mike Tyson has been diagnosed with both manic and chronic depression.

Perhaps the most haunting parallel to Royce White is former NBA first-round pick (18th overall) Luther Wright. Wright played 15 professional games in the NBA and averaged 1.3 points per game before being dismissed from the Utah Jazz.

He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was checked into a mental institution.

To say that none of these athletes could have benefited from better and established mental health protocols is blatantly neglecting reason.

“Think about the numerous suicides of retired professional athletes we have heard about in the last several years,” Dr. Heath said. “While the data are leaving little doubt that head trauma played a major role in some of these suicides, think about how the outcome may have been different if the players had years of quality mental health care during their career that also had continuity with the care they received after retirement.”

The more daunting truth is that suicide has become an all-too-common phenomenon among retired professional athletes dealing with some form of mental disorder.

Ray Easterling, a former Atlanta Falcons safety, dealt with documented dementia and depression before committing suicide on April 19. His autopsy showed “degenerative brain disease widely connected to athletes who have absorbed frequent blows to the head.”

NFL legend Junior Seau was found dead in his bed after a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest on May 2.  On Dec. 1 Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs shot and killed his girlfriend, then himself after thanking his coaches at Arrowhead Stadium.

The list goes on: Kurt Crain, who played two seasons in the NFL, shot and killed himself on April 10. O.J. Murdock of the Tennessee Titans shot himself in the head and died on July 30, shortly after texting Fort Hays State receivers coach Al McCray thanking him for everything he had done for his family.

Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bear, shot himself in the chest in February of 2011. Wade Belak, a former NHL player, hanged himself in August after dealing with critical depression. Ryan Freel, an MLB player self-admittedly riddled with concussions, committed suicide as recently as last week.

Each of these names represents a life that potentially could have been saved if more attention and care was shown to the good and welfare of the mental health of these professional athletes.

This isn't to say that White is in the same kind of peril or that his disorder has anything to do with those cases. Still, the Rockets seem to be doing nothing to help this circumstance and the future of mental health in the NBA.

“White's leverage will decrease with every passing day that the Rockets don't get results,” writes Eric Freeman of Yahoo! Sports. “And while he has the right to desire a positive work environment, he also chose to enter a business that needs certain things from its employees. The paying party typically holds the power in these situations. If he can't do the job, he might not have it much longer.”

It is certainly possible that, at this point, the relationship between the Houston Rockets and Royce White may indeed be over. While it is undetermined whether that means he is cut from the roster, traded or “forced” into retirement, White may have his own plans in mind.

White has indicated that if he does not get the consideration that he hopes for, he has no problem retiring from the NBA.

"I'd rather tell them on the front end and be honest and transparent and never play again for that than allow me to become one of the stories because I wasn't able to communicate," White said. "The problem is the art of the business, right? At no point will I compromise my health in the interest of business."

White has "retired" from basketball before, and has a documented interest in politics, business (he wishes to start nonprofits that will benefit urban areas) and music.

White should be celebrated for his braveness. He should be praised for speaking publicly about his issue and applauded for suggesting an alternative and way to help the image and health of the NBA. Even if he never plays a game in the NBA, his efforts ought not be forgotten.

“Professional athletes are used to seeing themselves as warriors able to withstand multiple physical challenges, and have battled to get to the next level because of their mental and physical toughness,” said Dr. Janet Taylor. “Now they may be sidelined by an enemy they can’t even see: their mind.”

It would be in the best interest of the NBA and the preservation and safety of their players to set such a protocol now before it has become too late.

Bryan Kalbrosky is  Featured Columnist on Bleacher Report and a journalism student at the University of Oregon. Follow him on Twitter for more of his adventures and stories.