Long Past Overdue: Mental Health & The NBA
Royce A. White
ALL AFFILIATED ENTITIES
There is no conceivable efficacy in avoiding this topic any longer. Mental health is THEE social issue of our time. It is the crux of who we are. It is the continuum that we use to measure the way we think, feel and interact. It is so much more than the diagnostic criteria of the DSM. Mental health includes everyone on the planet. Our willingness or unwillingness to acknowledge this continuum does not and will never exclude us from it. The field of mental health is certainly not without its shortcomings. It is however oriented around the MIND, which is the base of our reality. Complexity of the individual and our society are growing exponentially in tandem. As a consequence, there’s an increase in the underlying angst that is fundamental to being human. Stress, anxiety, depression and trauma are wall-to-wall. Spiritually, as we become further detached from God we are scrambling to supplement divine meaning. We continue to fill that void with resent and many other toxins upon the realization that our replacements are inadequate. Modern science has done wonders in helping us to better articulate our psychological experience and status. Reports of mental health conditions are at an all time high. Frighteningly this uptick in reporting still leaves them majorly underreported and underserved. Mental health conditions are now more common than cancer, heart disease and diabetes COMBINED. However, it’s estimated that a staggering 65 percent of people with mental health conditions still go undiagnosed. Consistent with any human problem, procrastination augments the extremity and desperation of the eventual flashpoint. From the more sinister conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, down to the simplest bone fractures, we see that delayed identification and intervention hinders the effectiveness of treatment. HEALTH has in general always been a good medium to observe this phenomena.
As a SOCIETY, we must find and commit to ways of supporting people who are struggling and simultaneously help them thrive. We must do this with immediacy. That effort starts with GENUINE care, Being more honest about our true nature and our ability to choose past that nature, and Redefining our goals to create better standards. Hopefully that will begin to transform a culture of rabid distrust into one that’s more transparent. This is no easy task, but certainly a necessary one.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with me, I want to debunk a few myths before we proceed. Here is a condensed version of my journey to add some much needed context. In 2012 I was drafted by the Houston Rockets. I came into the NBA with FULL DISCLOSURE of my pre-existing diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I had spoken about this publicly while playing college basketball at Iowa State University. Despite the editorial angle that has been commonly used as a synopsis of my story, my inability to manage this anxiety WAS NOT the cause of my "career derailment.” Reading my contracts thoroughly and calling attention to a major void is what got me exiled. As the beginning of my rookie season in the NBA approached, the Houston Rockets and I began a discussion on how to foster a supportive environment. The goal was to replicate the health and basketball success I’d recently had at Iowa State under coach Fred Hoiberg. There, mental health was treated as a key component of overall health. My motivation was to connect some dots on the psychological pseudo-science I was presented with in my pre-draft process. During these discussions, my management team and I were shocked to discover that there were NO FORMAL MENTAL HEALTH POLICIES in our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). In response, we attempted to formalize a written agreement that would modify existing general and physical health policies to encompass mental health. This would at least give all parties a legislative template to use for operational matters. Our proposal included ALL TEAM PERSONNEL, not just the PLAYERS. That proposal was tacitly denied. It was during this time that birth was given to a narrative that I was simply ”AWOL” and non-compliant. This was mostly the work of Daryl Morey (General Manger of the Houston Rockets) and maybe some others that I am not aware of. That narrative was untrue and drove me to Twitter and other media outlets to exonerate myself. In interview after interview, I made it clear that our concerns were regarding mental health AWARENESS, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT and PROTOCOL. Those concerns were morphed into innuendo that mental illness was too anomalous and hard to constitute. In many ways this was dismissive of the legitimacy of the entire mental health field. My opinion that mental illness was a pandemic was mocked and called “radical.” Within two weeks I was seeing some of the negative effects the ensuing conversation was going to have on the collective. A topic that was already dangerously taboo was now at the mercy of the fast and loose news format. In the internal talks around creating a comprehensive mental health policy, those speaking on behalf of the NBA communicated their central apprehension of our proposal - unconstrained opportunity for players to FAKE MENTAL ILLNESSES. I disagreed with that ALLEGATION on a foundational level. If you’re willing to be thrown into a demographic that is universally neglected and stigmatized by FAKING mental illness, you probably DO HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS. And that’s ridiculous on a 2nd level: Trained doctors are the best available recourse to oversee mental health planning / treatment and also to detect any malingering. It’s just flat out dangerous to grant autonomy of mental health decision making to coaches, general managers, or owners who are often completely unknowing of any mental health science. Without a written framework, there was obviously an added danger for these individuals to make these decisions on the fly as they go.
Despite my disagreements with the entire “faking” premise, we continued our dialogue that had by then become highly contentious. At the time Houston and the NBA were clearly upset that I had taken to twitter -- but there was likely more frustration that their own medical personnel wouldn’t play coy in the sandbox. All of the doctors involved were affirming the need for policy and I could see how incensed that was making the higher ups. I and many others involved took exception to the league’s rhetoric. Specifically a threat from the NBA office that certain accommodations (busing to games when possible) would be treated as a salary cap infringement. That drastically changed the temperature of the entire conversation. How dishonest. -- That was a disgusting display of bureaucratic double-dealing. -- Even more worrisome, we feared the possibility that the Houston Rockets were using "the league” as a pretext for their own discontentments. At this point I dug my heels in. My position was made clear: if accommodating my medical condition wasn't in play under salary cap policy, I would seek litigation. Only then did the league and The Houston Rockets agreed to provide a bus, but the real damage had already been done. We saw that the executives were fully aware that mental health was a gray area in policy, and they had now shown a willingness to use it for legal posture. My family physician, the medical personnel of the Houston Rockets, and the doctor from the NBA all saw this lack of mental health awareness as problematic. They also agreed that while the problem was serious, it was somewhat fixable. They were optimistic that with a little bit of thought and teamwork, policy could be created and that it would be extremely beneficial to all of the players and support staff of the entire league. In addition to that benefit, I saw the potential of a BIGGER positive impact on the world. Many have relayed a whopper that Daryl Morey forwarded, about Houston’s attempts to “BEND OVER BACKWARDS” for me. NOT true. If you’re involved in a medical discussion and you don’t surrender your ineptitudes to your own medical experts - you are not bending over backwards for anyone – nor even dealing in good faith. Although the Houston Rockets were consistently combative to medical input, they did eventually concede something: A verbal promise that later in the 2013 off-season they would indeed help us formalize a mental health policy. Unironically, when that off-season came, I was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers and the policy was never mentioned again.
My claim that policy didn’t exist was not arbitrary like the media made it seem. That claim has now been verified over the last 5 years by a variety of people from within the NBA. This includes players, coaches, GM’s, former team doctors and psychologists. National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) director Michelle Roberts recently described the attention to the mental health topic as "NAIVE".
Much of the coverage of my story has continued to belittle that very reality. My battle for mental health policy has often been misdirected and simplified down to “he couldn’t play because he couldn’t fly.” I've been written off by SOME within the league as a “head-case” out of an anger at my daring to challenge the status quo -- (or just my general inclination to critically think). I would hope by now most of you know how untrue the flying narrative was and STILL is. But ask yourselves how this story was so thoroughly disseminated in the first place. If this actually happens to be your very first time reading about this, I’ll clarify once again... I ABSOLUTELY do not like to fly. I’m NOT RESERVED about that. I’ve always maintained that I AM STILL ABLE TO FLY when necessary. As I mentioned above, the only TRAVEL accommodation request I ever made was to be afforded the option to bus to games IF NEEDED and WHEN POSSIBLE, mitigating the stresses of flying. (In addition to the need for general mental health policy, this accommodation was also agreed upon and recommended by ALL the medical professionals involved - including the NBA’s and Houston’s). Throughout my career I have played in numerous games that required me to fly. I’ve even played in games WHILE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK. I have never had to leave a game due to anxiety, or even sub out -- (Not to say that isn’t a possibility, or to cast any judgements on those who do). Kevin Love’s story verified that even when panic disrupts play, it does not necessarily inhibit you from all-star level performance over the course of a season. Insightfully, he too described the mental health demographic as “everyone”.
By the 2015 season I had become completely ostracized for my advocacy. In private team after team spoke of me as being a player with all-star level ability that was a risk of becoming a distraction. Looking back on it now, the fact that our attempt to advance mental health was considered a distraction by so many execs, reaffirms the appropriateness of my urgency. Later in 2015 I wrote to you, the NBA, and AGAIN asked that we work in collaboration to properly address the attitude and operation toward mental health within the NBA community. I felt strongly that together we could achieve transformative progress through experiences like my own and many others, players and non. By now a number of mental health professionals from around the world had expressed a readiness to help bridge the gap between folk-lore and science. Much to my disappointment, there was little response to that letter. Despite that dismissal, 3 years later the first written acknowledgment of mental health entered the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). A part of me was proud of that. However, I’ve never been really big on moral victories. A part of me felt like humanity was slapped in the face by this gesture. The new language in the CBA basically states, “we will tackle mental health in the future.” Is it not both arrogant and condescending to POST DATE a policy that you’re 20 years late on? Today we are faced with even more distortion. The incentive toward superficiality has exacerbated. Economic prosperity, brand visibility and the fan engagement of the NBA is at an all-time high. WE ARE ALL immersed in a steady windfall of unique technological advancement and social connectivity. I continue to fear that the impetus toward true comprehensive health is stifled.
In the face of a CONTINUED mental health discussion within sports and our greater society, I am deeply compelled to write to you again. This time we need to have a very different conversation.
This season the world saw three very good NBA players (Kevin Love, Demar Derozan & Kelly Oubre) make global headlines. These men BRAVELY disclosed their own mental health struggles with the public. However, they were not the first and MORE IMPORTANTLY they won’t be the last. Recent studies have shown that athletes may be even more predisposed to mental health struggles than other citizens. That research is what prompted the NCAA to advance their mental health attitudes a couple years ago. Over time many players have shared their mental health struggles. A better perspective though is to say that when players share ANY STRUGGLE they are sharing a struggle with some type of mental health component. Sometimes players have battled internal demons for their entire career. I certainly foresaw that being a possible trajectory for myself as consequence of needing to tip-toe around such struggles. As admirable as such testimony is, years of improperly bearing these heavy burdens can result in serious GENERAL HEALTH complications such as addiction, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, all in addition to psychological detriment. Individuals dealing with mental health REACTIVELY is very common. The most notable case of a completely PROACTIVE approach in the NBA may certainly be my own. Sadly when I challenged policy and advocated for my own health, people within my own support system feared the peripheral effects of my public castigation. They worried that many players wouldn’t discuss their plights going forward due to the level of condemnation that was crystallizing around me. Although I didn’t want to believe it, they were somewhat right. Over the past 5-6 years I’ve been contacted by hundreds of athletes that have conveyed their various mental health afflictions. Many of whom also expressed an apprehension to share those afflictions with their team or the public.
Now as I reflect, I am seared by the thought of all the younger non-professional athletes who may have also been discouraged to share their battles because of my situation. I receive weekly disclosures from people who aren’t athletes or even sports fans for that matter. They too BRAVELY talk about their mental health with me, a complete stranger. I feel indescribably appreciative of that. Given what I know about inner turmoil and stigma, I understand that individuals sharing their hardship is A PRIVILEGE and even more an OPPORTUNITY. I enjoy the chance to help those I can, but often I still wonder just how many peoples fear to share was directly shaped by our dispute. A great deal of athletes aren’t discussing mental health at all out of an awareness that it’ll have a negative impact on their athletic standing and consequently their overall social standing. That knowledge is validated by years of being judged under a microscope and watching fellow athletes torn down by gossip. Information that is made public about ANY OF US does ultimately effect our standing within a community. Although it maybe shouldn't, it at least doesn’t have to happen through a vacuum of superstition.
As seen in the recent case of my compatriot Demar Derozan, he used “sacrificial lamb” to describe his admission of battling depression. I don’t believe that “sacrificial lamb” was just a turn of phrase...
He was establishing that he viewed his disclosure as a threat. THAT SHOULD’VE BEEN COVERED BY THE MEDIA AS A RED FLAG IN ITS OWN RIGHT. He intuited that BEING HONEST ABOUT HIS REALITY IS GROUNDS TO MAKE HIM AN OSTRACIZED, CAST ASIDE, SACRIFICIAL LAMB. Headlines should have read “THE NBA HAS NOT MADE IT OKAY TO DISCUSS MENTAL HEALTH BUT DEMAR DEROZAN DOES HELP US ALL ANYWAY.” Instead, journalists who fear having their press credentials taken, protected a false god once again. This is still playing out as we near the end of the current season. In a desire for an antithetical hero, the media now pits the NBA as culturally progressive juxtaposed against the NFL; This is a false catharsis driven by incompetence and half truths. -- We are societally frustrated with incompetence and half truths. -- The most accurate measurement is the NBA and NFL are very similar. Somebody still owes Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf a public apology.
(Side-note: I find it downright appalling how mercenary sports media has become. Access to NBA pressers, that are mostly mundane and repetitive, have become the currency for journalistic integrity. Journalism has to mean more to us -- it is maybe the most important mechanism of an evolving civilization.)
The chronology of Demar Derozan’s career indicates that it may have taken him 9 years to feel secure enough to speak publicly about something as common as depression. That 9 years includes the last 5 years where I and other players have publicly raised mental health into the spotlight. For some of you, people staying silent like Derozan was the intended effect of my basketball exile... To serve as a reminder that anybody who pushes too far, truth bearing or not, will be forced back into line or out completely. (A silence that is not a stigma reserved for mental health.) When you have a poor understanding of the domain (mental health) that you’re dealing with it’s easy to disregard reasonable parameters. The group you purported to be outliers has quickly shifted into the standard. You’ve lost the reigns on a psychological monopoly. This has now played out, thrusting the NBA into a state of DAMAGE CONTROL. These most recent public sentiments regarding mental health are not an attempt to reconcile lack of policy or fundamentally improve the attitude; WELLNESS has been forced on the NBA, not accepted or embraced by it. It is therefore NOT a genuine effort and cannot be the foundation of the change needed.
“The NBA supports our fans, families, and communities by promoting healthy minds and bodies and increasing awareness around emotional well-being. We are all on the same team when it comes to looking out for each other and making a difference for someone who is struggling.”
That is a statement from the “Mind Health” web page, a part of the NBA Cares newly launched mental health initiative. What comes next may not look familiar to you, but it should. It’s a paraphrase from the letter I addressed to you 3 years ago. It most likely was never distributed amongst our NBA community. Commissioner Silver probably didn’t feel it was important enough to share with everyone. He did make it known to me that he had received and read that letter. The similarities of his and the league’s NEW messaging aren’t hard to parse. If you didn’t read it, here are a few excerpts from it:
“I believe men, women and children in this country and around the world should be able to seek support no matter their circumstances. They should believe that they are important no matter who or where they are, and especially no matter what they have. I will not join in sending a message that to self-advocate, to be transparent and to expect humanity is reserved only for those who are successful.”
“I wish to continue to discuss establishing the necessary mental health policies that we desperately need in our league. It is my hope and belief we can find a way to create a better circumstance, a better clarity for our players, our league, all of our families and loved ones, extended communities and young people to which we serve as role models. Maybe we can even serve as a beacon and example of necessary progress to all that the NBA brand reaches. Today is a time where genuine action is more necessary than ever.”
After “ two decades” of engagement with mental health issues (as former commissioner David Stern once put it), this statement is just not embodied. It was probably written by a very good marketing person or one of the mental health advocates at the JED foundation. This advocate seems to understand the magnitude of mental health . The ethos of the statement expresses a scope of mental health that the league’s policies, attitudes and actions have not. The NBA and commissioner Silver have only opportunistically seized on the public desperation to have mental health superficially and thus prematurely, recognized. (This is another false catharsis.)
I want to take you back to NBA All-Star Weekend in 2013. During a presser in Houston,
David Stern was asked by a reporter if my situation represented the first time the league had dealt with mental health issues. Stern responded by dating the NBA’s awareness and intervention with mental health issues as “years” and even “decades” old. In retrospect these comments clarified that mental health had long been IDENTIFIED, CONSIDERED AND NOT CODIFIED. This illustrates that at the time of my initial conflict with the league, the perspective on mental health was severely under-developed from the top down. (In all fairness to Mr. Stern, the premise of the question was a non starter. My situation TECHNICALLY couldn’t have been the first point of contact with mental health issues for the NBA. There’s been mental health issues in the NBA since it’s INCEPTION. That belief is default and grounded in the fact that mental heath is an inherent part of being human, as is hardship.)
“Does anybody remember (Metta World Peace, the former Ron Artest) thanking his therapist at the Finals when the (2010 Lakers) won the championship?”
This was another part of Stern’s response to the question about the league’s history with mental health issues. The tone is very matter of fact. Ironically, the statement amplifies his lack of mental health aptitude. In an attempt to show his familiarity, he demonstrates that HIS understanding of the mental health landscape is a complete caricature. He immediately sensationalized mental health by crudely presenting Metta World Peace as a paragon. A player who had at that time recently made his own mental health struggles public. It was an example that carried with it the historical context of the rare brawl, “Malice at the Palace”. Violence is an extreme of mental health outcomes, it does not well represent the “functioning” portion of the mental health spectrum that my own anxiety disorder occupies. The functioning portion of the mental health spectrum is the overwhelming majority, and mostly non-violent I might add. (Just as Metta World Peace is mostly non-violent within the context of his ENTIRE career.) Even the most malevolently violent individuals in history spent many more days being non-violent than violent. This statement by Mr. Stern was weaponized or imprudent and didn’t pay the proper respect to the mental health of myself or Metta World Peace. I am now more confident inferring that was some of Mr. Stern's motive for ordering NBA league management to stay out of my situation with Houston: He feared his inability to weave through a public discourse without having to answer some questions that would've likely exposed his own NEGLIGENCE. Also in this statement, Stern implicitly asserts that Metta World Peace thanking his psychiatrist was in some way a symbol to the NBA’s longstanding history of consideration, progression and compassion for mental health. Unfortunately, by my count the NBA goes a whopping 0-2 in the Metta World Peace example.
“Malice in the Palace” is a situation that boasts a very loose grasp on the concept of mental health. Metta World Peace was assessed a year long suspension, after being attacked by a fan, during a physical altercation with an opposing player at an opposing arena. When watching the footage of that commotion, it reveals Metta World Peace at one point laying flat on his back at the scores table. This is a position I’m sure many of us with anxiety know as a technique of reset and relaxation. It can also be used to curtail rage. I was 13 years old at the time of that brawl, three years prior to my own anxiety diagnosis. To Metta’s credit, it seemed as though he had attempted to engage his own PROTOCOLS for managing his condition(s) prior to the melee. I’d be curious to see how that effort from him was weighed in measuring his culpability when deciding his punishment, if at all. While we’re looking under that rock, let’s examine the penalties of the others players as well. Some of them may have mental health struggles that are kept private or undiscovered. The statistics of 2 out of 3 people with mental illness going undiagnosed strongly supports that possibility. In recognition of the “fight or flight” mechanism of the brain, why whip and lambast players that were in an arena where drunk fans were coming onto the court by the dozens? In replaying the footage, you can see Indiana players being harassed by fans hurling drinks, food, and other objects at them as they made their way back into the locker room. I thought the PUBLIC RESPONSE should’ve have been something like “We the NBA apologize to our patrons AND players for the sequence of events that unfolded. We have a selective relationship with the realities of inebriation.” With his actual statement Stern struck again with a staunch disposition of allegiance to the brand and an insultingly high expectation of the players. After the incident, while announcing the suspensions, he makes light of his "unanimous" decision to suspend Metta World Peace for "crossing an immutable line". Im puzzled, if theres any basis for an immutable line, how would it not conversely be in the direction of the 20,000 fans encroaching on 15 basketball players. Jokes aside, the same tenacious defender and enforcer that Metta World Peace had been praised as was in that moment used against him. What type of racket is that??
Metta’s return from basketball purgatory and his navigation through the stigma and whatever inner turmoil HE FACED reflects METTA’s individual capacity to persevere far more than the NBA’s empathy.
Circling back to the aforementioned 2013 interview during All-Star Weekend, David Stern overlooks DRUGS and ALCOHOL ABUSE as a much better example of mental health conditions and their prevalence within the league -- Much better than Metta World Peace. This is particularly strange given that ALCOHOL was such an obvious component of “Malice in the Palace” and the drug and alcohol “clean up” is considered one of the hallmarks of Stern’s tenure. It definitely has been maintained as a point of emphasis for the PLAYER consumption policies. The league has often shown they are mostly concerned with safe-guarding the brand, and not so much the consideration of clinical research and treatments to deal with addictions and their many underlying causes. The Larry Sanders story showed us this punitive interplay. Those types of analysis must be at least a part of how we evaluate the NBA’s history of “dealing” with mental health.
Since David Stern missed that opportunity and many others, I’ll establish homage for Mitchell Wiggins, Michael Ray Richardson, Roy Tarpley, Dennis Rodman, Chris Herron, Vin Baker, Jayson Williams, Keon Clark, Eddie Griffin (RIP), Lamar Odom, Ty Lawson, Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo and countless others. Although they all played their roles in consumption (with some degree of moral culpability, regardless of whether we as a society agree to what extent moral responsibility plays a part in substance use), they definitely had to co-exist within an irresponsible consumption culture. If there’s any truth to the cliché that you’re a product of your environment, we should be thankful that even more athletes have not succumbed to alcoholism. The NBA workplace is inundated with drunkenness for 82 or more nights per year.
It’s laughably dishonest when you apply “product of your environment” or “guilt by affiliation” only when sitting in judgment of players and their upbringing, personal relationships, or “entourages.”
In the interest of not sensationalizing the topic of mental health any more, we should acknowledge all the players who had and/or have issues with drugs or alcohol that remain hidden. Let’s also recognize ALL of the players with completely undiscovered mental health issues, drug and alcohol related or not. Many have suffered in complete silence. We see how these issues can metastasize into more serious problems (RIP RASUAL BUTLER). This is in some part due to the NBA’s voluntary non-engagement with the mental health field and a perpetuated stigma within its ecosystem. This is not an interplay exclusive to the players and management; it also exists within management. To give a personal example of this drug stigma, I myself have been referred to as a “weed-head” over recent years by some of you. Even though I’ve maintained a very disciplined non-engagement with ANY TYPE of drugs. Partly because my first panic attack, at 16, was induced by my first and last marijuana encounter and produced an aversion to it. More saliently because MY ENGAGEMENT with the mental health field has educated me on how predisposed you are to unhealthy coping mechanism like drugs, SPECIFICALLY marijuana, when you have an ANXIETY DISORDER. I’ve never failed a drug test, and I’m notoriously known as an avid non drug user in my social circles. It makes me glaringly see how an important issue like drug use can haphazardly cross into the domain of gossip. For somebody like myself with a disposition fierce enough to challenge the league on policy and morality and ethics, this isn’t so damaging personally. But for SOME this type of cattiness can be a significant producer of shame and deterrence.
It’s one thing to be afflicted with stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, etc. To wrestle with shame on top of those gorillas is usually exacerbating. Exterior environments should refrain from such contributions.
Paradoxically David Stern’s most recent advocacy of removing marijuana from the NBA’s banned substance list is quite peculiar, wouldn’t you say? I watched that media coverage play out with a very bad taste in my mouth. All I could think of was the enormous number of players past and present who have had their careers severely impacted by an archaic view on marijuana. Most of that happened on David Stern’s watch. To publicize this opinion only shortly after stepping down as the commissioner seems like a grandstand in an attempt to appear to be culturally progressive. There is a societal momentum toward the decriminalization of marijuana. However, per the topic, much of the movement toward decriminalizing marijuana comes in concession to its potential positive medical effects, its COMORBIDITY with MENTAL ILLNESS and its historical judicial ethno-racial prejudice. The marijuana decriminalization is LONG PAST OVERDUE. It is yet another example of systemically neglecting science that is very much settled.
TO BE VERY CLEAR. I’m not saying people or fans shouldn’t be able to drink alcohol. I’m not even saying people shouldn’t be able to drink alcohol at sporting events. People should be able to enjoy themselves how they choose, as long as they do it responsibly. I am saying that we should consider what we mean by a “family environment”, which sporting events are champions of. What do we think about grown men & women getting drunk in front of their own and other people’s children?, In an explicitly child-friendly space? Is that honoring what we know about child development or families? Is it unreasonable to establish a cutoff? -- On the other hand we internally punish marijuana users in the interest of the perceptions of that same public. The research suggests when you SCARE individuals to choose away from their vice of choice (marijuana) without addressing the underlying causes (mental health) you’re only pushing them toward a substitute like alcohol. I believe people need to be equipped to make informed decisions about their consumption. Note: This concern far transcends just the NBA, within the world of sports. Should our institutions that profit from vice assist in painting a more grounded picture?
I took the time to expound on a FEW of David Stern’s comments because of his thirty year position at the helm of the NBA. Some of these blatant contradictions should beckon us all to further examine his moral and ethical stewardship of the league and subsequently the health of its players. While still holding in high regard his role in the globalization of the game, these selected comments speak VOLUMES as to why mental health had been ignored during his time as commissioner. I say that while accepting that the commissioner position carries with it a level of uniqueness and is subject to dynamics that often only other commissioners understand. Ironically many of our leaders, globally, suffer from the same trust estranged culture that creates mental health stigma. In many professional roles, unadulterated truth is not an efficacious strategy for self-preservation. When in doubt tell the truth, or at least explain why you can’t.
As citizens of America, we are all witness to the tremendous chaos of our times. The tragedies are stacking up all around us. Suicides are up to nearly 45,000 annually. White males accounting for 7 out of 10 of those (though they are only 30% of the general population). Our VETERANS have a horrendous rate of 22 suicides per day, (Side note: If we’re going to discuss patriotism, respecting the anthem and our troops, our efforts better be starting there, especially since both the NFL and our troops SHARE a common enemy: psychological health deterioration.)
Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death in young people. The transgender community has the most alarming suicide attempt statistics in America, reporting a rate of 41 percent. If that doesn’t adequately depict the sorrow we face, our doctors, who we trust to keep us healthy, have the highest suicide rate of ANY PROFESSION. That is NOT TO DISCREDIT the psychological stability of doctors, actually it’s to praise their emotional resilience. Their proximity to death is inordinate and scary for most of us to even abstractly reflect on. Hauntingly, that’s only highlighting the mental health fringe of suicide. When you see those stats in sequence, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that ONE SUICIDE IS ALREADY ONE TOO MANY. It’s also easy to forget that while suicide and homicide are the worst possible outcomes, LIVING in perpetual turmoil is happening far more and BOTH NEED TO BE REELED IN.
But for now to continue highlighting suicide and homocide, the police-civilian relations paradigm is a great laboratory to observe ripples in a pond. A MINORITY of our police and civilians cannot seem to find a point of understanding or trust. They continue to echo frustration, fear, and, in the end, violence. What is not readily mentioned in these discourses surrounding cop-civilian relations is the suicide rate of 1 police officer every 81 hours. More police officers are lost annually to suicide than by motor-vehicles and gunfire combined. It is estimated that for every cop suicide, 1000 officers continue to work while suffering from PTSD. This reality has to be playing a role in the re-emerging problem of excessive force -- the question is how big is that role? In my opinion it’s very significant. The black community quite transparently harbors a deep and warranted fear of unjust treatment from police that’s entrenched in a similar treatment from the greater American system. We are forced to address crime in this country in some manner, the question is how? Besides those troubling surface observations, there are still many unresolved questions. One in particular that interests me is the genetic transferability of trauma. It prompts the question of just how prevalent are the residual psychological effects of a unique 250+ year slavery? Is it possible that ON ALL SIDES, latent programs of racism and trauma are nestled in the subconscious and then manifested through environmental factors? Like in policing or maybe even OWNER/MANAGER/EMPLOYEE paradigms.
The abomination of young men going into schools and shooting their brothers and sisters is the most tragic reality we are witnessing in America. No matter where you fall on the gun debate, it can't be ignored that in the history of our country these specific horrors have never been seen in such frequency.
Mental health has become a regurgitated straw man for the debate on gun control. Although it is actually the best anchor for that debate, the context is obscured by political agenda. Better background checks to screen gun buyers for mental illness is a very reasonable idea. We do have pretty decent tools to identify mental health conditions, when patients can participate with consistency and honesty. The problem is the majority of individuals afflicted don’t access those tools and when they do, they’re infrequent and not fully honest. THAT is where STIGMA is a huge roadblock. Again to reiterate, our current mental health culture and system leaves 2 out of 3 people with UNDIAGNOSED mental health conditions. I fear that Pro gun Americans don’t quite understand that many of them could technically and rightly be diagnosed with mental illness under clinical guidelines. The same goes for millions of anti-gun Americans. Under normal circumstances AN INCREASE IN DIAGNOSIS AND ESSENTIAL ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH CARE WOULD BE AN INCREDIBLE SOCIAL IMPROVEMENT. While still true, in the polarity of today it would also put many at risk of losing their gun rights completely. It's easy to deduce that the qualification for gun ownership being based on mental health status, could become the new disincentive for individuals to evade much needed diagnosis. That would compound the existing stigma that is currently out of control and predominately only social in nature. The attempt to moderate gun safety with psychological fiat could severely undermine the most important conversation in the history of our species: mental health. And I don’t see anyone in society or the political landscape piecing this together. I AM NOT SAYING WE GET RID OF GUNS (although ultimately it may need to be seriously considered). I don’t see a trajectory of individual enlightenment that would render guns considerably safer anytime soon. There isn’t a mental health measuring system that can cover the mobility of our psyche and its capacity to be pathological or innocently reckless. We need to be EXTREMELY cautious interjecting mental health into the gun debate without the utmost consideration and objectivity. Personally I would suggest we entertain putting down the guns for a moment to at least get a reasonable grasp on our psychological constraints.
To show how this suggested gun reform is truly a “shot from the hip”, we can look to our aforementioned demographic of police officers. A group of Americans (police) with relatively WELL DOCUMENTED trauma, are given guns everyday -- with the expectation that the usage will be methodical and compassionate. We are broken when that doesn’t happen.
Before going to play in Canada, I had seven guns pointed at me in a supposed "mistaken identity" situation. Now when I see police cars I prepare myself for death. I see them often, I can physically feel the fear swell up, followed by anger and periodic flashbacks. That isn’t how our law abiding citizens should feel as they go about their daily lives. I also have many friends and family members who are officers and in my anger and distrust, I still HAVE TO FIND compassion for the harm they all face everyday in their WORKPLACE.
Those were just three of the “hot spot” issues that currently magnify the societal dangers of continued mental health lip service. Three more subtle epidemics that are completely embedded in our society and may be more pernicious are caffeine, dehydration, and sleep disturbance. If that doesn’t encapsulate the hyper dynamic nature of the mental health crisis, only you eclipsing your own despair threshold will.
While the majority of achieving and maintaining wellness is an individual endeavor, we must acknowledge the role of socializing structures as potential conduits or obstructions to that ambition.
This was an excerpt from the charter of our leagues mandatory, Rookie Transition Program that I attended shortly after being drafted. It was placed at the end of the first letter I wrote to you.
There is a special emphasis on Character, Ethics and Leadership, the Importance of Positive Images as well as Personal and Social Responsibility."
You may wonder why I have pushed so insistently for the NBA to engage the mental health topic over the last 5 years. First order of course is the basic health of the players, all of the employees and also the owners. Though outside of that the NBA influences millions, if not billions of individuals directly. That influence is not only in their love of sports, but their integration with modern culture. As a lifelong athlete, I have willingly subscribed to the notion that I am by default a role model. At a young age I recognized my unequaled ability to lead. I take that quality very seriously. At times I have let God down by neglecting and misusing that gift. I am and will pay for those transgressions. Now I ASK YOU, if athletes are role models by default, is the same not true for the leagues that broker their talent; the networks that distribute that talent; and ALL OTHERS THAT ARE EQUALLY COMPLICIT? Is the NBA itself not a role model?, ESPN (Walt Disney)?, ABC?, TNT?, State Farm?, Verizon?, Nike?, Spalding?, Budweiser? How about more peripheral sponsors? Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Kia, Chevron, Jack Daniels, KAISER PERMANENTE, etc.? Is mental health avoidance by an amalgamated institution of this size not a microcosm of the avoidance by us all? Is this leadership? Is this the way to shape our world?
I’ve spent a great deal of time explaining some of the depth and nuance of the mental health landscape. I can’t say enough about the need for us to confront this issue with open minds and hearts. Our very existence is counting on properly expediting our enlightenment. Although mental health is undoubtedly the bedrock of this letter, the MOHO is hidden deeper in a sediment that has continued to be expressed by numerous people in our industry. “You’re too smart for your own good”. I pray that in my older age, intellectual insecurity and fear of change will never cause me to discourage the anomaly of existential journeymen -- visionary crusaders. That message came from older white men. I won’t overlook the vivid historical context of premeditated attempts to suppress black intellect in America. To suggest that it was foolish to focus my attention on THEE SOCIAL ISSUE OF OUR TIME sounds strikingly like “shut up and dribble”. That comment is not intended in any way to race bait. I will hopefully split the difference by sharing that there are a number of my fellow “white” brothers and sisters whom have been significant supporters in my standing for morality and ethics. I do feel like race has played a role in my situation. However, I mention it with inference that mental health includes, but ALSO greatly supersedes race. The fear of intelligence and change is not exclusive to the American paradigm of “black and white”. That human proclivity has archetypal emergence.
We’ve erected a unique world. PHILOSOPHICAL CURRENCY is our best option to realign us to a path of virtue. Those amongst us who commit to that can’t justifiably be labeled “lost and confused”. We ARE “noble” and we are the observers of the meta-temporal. Adrian Wojnarowski once claimed with an air of surety that “Without the NBA, (my) desire to bring awareness – to be a champion for change – will come to an unapologetic and abrupt end.” This type of thought process fails to see that the human condition (struggle) connects us many orders below the surface of sports stories or their writers. Both of which could be of great service or harm to the mental health conversation. Regardless, those of us with “noble intentions” maintain a level of gravity within that nobility. We will always lead, we are not in NEED of propagation. Humanity has a chance to turn a corner through the psychological domain. We should let the mental health topic galvanize our deepest desires to right our world and realize some of America’s founding aspirations.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” – Psalm 118:22
Royce Alexander White
P.S. I welcome any of you who wish to continue these conversations and collaborate on truly advancing this issue. I’m hopeful that for a number of you most of this letter’s contents come as quite a surprise. At least from the accounts that involve various operational matters. It’s very easy for information to be miscommunicated. The media has definitely played a major role in that, which is why I’ll continue to show up and right any of those wrongs. Clarity is the short and long term goal of wellness conversations. Also, I’m completely capable and willing to play (basketball) and I always have been. In the interest of getting a chance to settle any disputes about my game or my claim of “top 5” basketball pedigree, I retract my request to bus to any games. I do not retract that it was medically recommended or a reasonable request. However I no longer accept “martyrdom” as a result of necessary discussions.
My game has more it wants to say than my pen does.