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 1/2 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 professional 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.
Outfielder Jimmy Piersall famously coped with bipolar disorder in the 1950s, spending seven weeks in a mental hospital at one point. He returned to baseball, was twice named to the All-Star team and played in the majors until the late 1960s. Pitcher Zack Greinke almost quit baseball because of his social anxiety disorder, but learned to control it and was named the AL Cy Young award winner in 2009. Chicago Bears 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 at Texas and played 11 NFL seasons while dealing with social anxiety disorder.
The Rockets knew what they were getting when they selected White out of Iowa State 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.
“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.”
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.