An Interview With Royce White on His Anxiety Disorder and Struggles With the Houston Rockets

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Jan. 7 2013 9:48 PM

Hang Up and Listen: The Playing Through Pain Edition

Slate’s sports podcast on Robert Griffin III’s knee injury. Plus: an interview with Royce White on his anxiety disorder and struggles with Houston Rockets management.

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In this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca talk about the Redskins’ decision to play their injured quarterback Robert Griffin III in the Redskins 24-14 loss to the Seahawks and Ray Lewis’ complex legacy. They are also joined by Houston Rockets forward Royce White to talk about his struggles with generalized anxiety disorder, his recent suspension, and his candid Twitter account.

You can read the transcript of the interview with Royce White below.

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Here are links to some of the articles and other items mentioned on the show:

Hang Up and Listen’s weekly mandolins:

Mike’s mandolin: The worst place to watch an NFL game is at a sports bar with a DJ. The best place is your living room with a TiVo.

Stefan’s mandolin: FIFA president Sepp Blatter has said some absurd things over the years, including his recent comments on racism

Josh’s mandolin: Fake championship ring seller Stephen Sirabella is suing the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports Logos for demanding that he stop selling his merchandise.

Podcast production and edit by Mike Vuolo. Our intern is Eric Goldwein.

You can email us at hangup@slate.com.

Transcript of interview with Royce White.

JOSH: During the 2011-2012 season at Iowa State, Royce White was the only college basketball player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocked shots. As he starred on the court, White also disclosed that he suffered from generalized anxiety disorder, a condition that, among other things, leads to panic attacks. His honesty about his condition likely caused White to drop in the NBA draft, where he was selected by the Houston Rockets with the 16th pick in the first round. But White has yet to play in a game for the Rockets and he says the team has not listened to medical advice about how to treat his condition.

A week ago after reportedly refusing an assignment to the Rockets’ D-League affiliate, he released a statement that read in part, “I do wish to play, but I only intend to do so with the collaboration and recommendation of trained professionals. … 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. To portray that the Rockets have been supportive to me is fundamentally incorrect.” This Sunday, the Rockets suspended White, saying he was refusing to provide the services required by his player contract. Royce White has joined us by phone today. Thanks for being with us, Royce.

ROYCE WHITE: Thanks for having me, guys.

JOSH: Sure, and maybe we can start by just saying what your expectations were when you were drafted by the Rockets in the first round.

ROYCE WHITE: Well, I really didn’t have any. I mean, I understood that I was one of the first players to be so honest and public about my mental health struggles on the front end, so to speak. So I knew that it was going to be a long process and some growing pains along the way anyway. I expected that from day one.

MIKE: When your career at Iowa State really kicked into gear—and you had transferred to Iowa State after a struggle at your first school—you had a plan in place and it was pretty regimented from what I’ve read.  Could you talk about how you thought you would transition that successful plan that got you drafted in the first round, that helped you get drafted, to the professional levels. Did you have managers? Did you have a psychologist you were working with? You know, other than the good intention of you and the Rockets, how did you expect to transfer that college plan in some way to the pros?

ROYCE WHITE: The plan that Iowa State implemented was a very simple one. And it was, listen, Coach Hoiberg was great in understanding that he knew very little about mental health. And I think part of the reason, you know, he was so open is because he has his own health issue that is another complex health issue with his heart condition, and he understood that he needed to listen to not only the doctors but he needed to listen to me and he needed to trust that I wasn’t going to try and get over on him using my condition and whatnot. And we had that understanding and we ended up working well together.

STEFAN: You had someone that worked with you very closely at Iowa State, sort of someone that was your guy. To make sure that you understood what the plans were. To make sure that on a daily basis your expectations were clear about what was required of you to play. You’ve mentioned on Twitter a lot about a “protocol” that you’d like to establish. In my mind, a lot of that is sort of groundbreaking for professional sports. You want to set a sort of precedent for how athletes with mental health issues can work with teams to ensure that they compete and train in a safe environment. What specifically though, Royce, are you seeking from that protocol? What is it that the team—whether it’s the owner or the front office, whoever—what is it the team has not been able to come to agreement with you on a plan?

ROYCE WHITE: Well, there’s two pieces to it. One is that, you know, under ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] law, anybody who has a disability in the work place, and if your job has over 50 employees, your job is required to accommodate you and the accommodation does need to be reasonable. That is stated in the law. The protocol here is just that, you know, when a medical situation arises, dealing with the mental-health-related symptoms, that a medical professional take the lead on how to move forward. Whether that be not moving at all, whether that be moving slow, whether that be moving at 100 miles an hour. Somebody that’s qualified and trained to give medical advice is the person who is at the lead of that. And I think that’s very logical and sensible. And to allow somebody like Daryl Morey, for example, to take the lead on that situation with having no medical training, is not only illogical but at the bare minimum it’s very unsafe.

MIKE: Royce, I think we just jumped ahead because there are just a couple things I don’t understand. It’s probably my problem. I’m not sophisticated enough with some of these issues. Here it is, the NBA draft and Royce White has this incredible talent, but he drops a little bit because maybe people don’t even understand what’s going on with you. They know you’re afraid of flying, maybe that’s all they understand. But then the Rockets draft you. Who did they call? Did they call your agent? Does the agent say, “All right, now that Royce is under your control I’m going to fax over, what, 10 pages of what should be done and it will spell out what his practice schedule should be.” I have no idea what went on. Who did they communicate with and what did they communicate?

ROYCE WHITE: You know, this [arose] when we were about to go to training camp. And there were a number of things that were going on with me, and my doctor recommended—who was my family practice doc, who first diagnosed my illness when I was in high school and has given me advice ever since—she said, “Hey listen, you need to stop doing anything until they get a solid plan in place that’s well thought out and considerate and that’s well within your right to ask for.” So that’s what I did. I said, “Hey listen, let’s get a plan in place. And until we get a plan in place, it’s not going to be safe. The workplace is not safe. And that’s the bottom line.” And, you know, they were very open to that in the beginning. They wanted to get together and do it. And then I think once they figured out how hard it might be or how complex it might actually get, that willingness to be collaborative only strains more when people on both sides figure out how much they need to put in.

MIKE: Who was representing you in this negotiation with the plan? You personally? Or did you have ...

ROYCE WHITE: Well, it was collaborative. I mean my agents and I were in constant communication with them. We talked about my travel. I probably took about a total of 20 flights last year at Iowa State. It caused me some stress, yes. To go from 20 flights to 96 flights for somebody who has a plane phobia is a risky amount of exposure. You know, right, there’s a difference between if you have a minor allergy to peanut butter and you eat one peanut butter sandwich. OK, you might not feel great but it’s not going to kill you. Now if you jumped in a big basket of peanut butter [laughs], you know, that might be it.

MIKE: Or if every flight takes a great deal out of you, doing it 96 teams is not smart.   

ROYCE WHITE: Yeah, exactly.

MIKE: OK, I get that.

ROYCE WHITE: So we said “Hey, OK, listen. How are we going to rectify that?” OK, well, we’re going to allow, well we asked to be allowed to bus to the games that are, you know, close enough. And when I’m on the road, let’s say we flew to Detroit and we had a game in Milwaukee. OK, well, we could bus when we get to Detroit from Milwaukee and if then we have to fly back or if you know, we could drive back. Or, whatever we can do that’s feasible. That whole negotiation took a while to do. A number of reasons. (a) is, who is going to pay for that, and that became an issue. The Rockets finally agreed that it does make sense for them to pick up that cost because travel requirements are something that teams do and first class travel requirements are something that also is in the CBA. So they agreed to that and then then there was also putting it in writing. Putting it in writing was a tough thing and the NBA didn’t want them to do that and then they came back a day later and said that they could do it. And it was a big weird process where again, protocol was obviously absent. There’s no precedent to work off so everybody’s really confused. And we finally got that squared away. And I started off the season, we were traveling, some other things were happening, and then some more stressful situations. I started having migraines and I said, “Hey listen, let’s go back to the protocol now. I mean, let’s, where we at with the protocol?” That’s when it started to get a little tense.

STEFAN: What comes to my mind, there are two things. The level of support to help you get the deal that you need in order to work safely, but also this larger question of, are you pressing these issues because you really believe you can’t function without something very, very specific? Or has this become about something larger for you?

ROYCE WHITE: It has become something bigger, I think. It was never my intention for it to become a big political thing or a social type of issue. I really didn’t intend for that to happen. I think it happened because the mental illness community by default is one that is (a) very quiet, and I am very unique to that group in that I’m not quiet. And (b), it’s just something that we’ve been avoiding for years and years. I mean we have players that are actually in the NBA right now with mental health issues probably even on my team. And there’s no protocol in place. So that just tells you there’s an issue out there that’s being talked about but it’s never being acted on. Now, talking about Iowa State, I think is very tough in terms of support, right? Because, you can’t even compare the two, and the reason why is because in college, the coach is the head honcho. OK, what Fred Hoiberg says at Iowa State goes. And what Kevin McHale says here in Houston is, it’s kind of neither here nor there, you know, when you’re talking about front office issues. Coach Hoiberg doesn’t really have a boss. The AD, yeah. But the AD really gives all the power back to him. I think at the end of the day, you’re never going to see the same kind of support on a professional team that you would at a college team just because there’s not the money factor involved for the players, and that adds a different dynamic, and (b) is just because the structure is set up different.

STEFAN: Now, Royce, you’ve been outspoken on Twitter about your condition and about your negotiations with the Rockets. Your platform to help others with mental health as you’ve describe and I think most of our listeners probably have seen Jon Hock’s short documentary about you that was on Grantland a couple of months ago, and understand you from that. Your platform to have things like that as a player is enormous. How do you balance the understanding of your broader goals as an athlete and as a human being, with the risk that if you don’t have the NBA, you’re not going to have that sort of access to people, to change the way they think?

ROYCE WHITE: Here’s what I believe. I believe in the truth. I’m a big seeker of the truth. I’m a big applier of the truth when I can find it. Some people argue that the truth, and what’s not true, is always up for debate. I don’t believe that, and I believe that the truth is truth, whether anybody knows it or not. And I also believe that if I stand for being true and I stand for being honest and I stand for people—you know welfare is a big thing of mine. I’m very humanitarian in my beliefs. But ultimately, I will affect change in a way that is positive. And that’s all that’s important. And, you know, having a platform that is bigger, maybe, but not built on the right ideas, it will crumble eventually. And it may not crumble in terms of you being able to reach people, because maybe I’m always able to reach people. But the message that’s coming through, the purity of the message, the genuineness of the message, crumbles at some point. And in terms of the platform, if it evaporates, I’ve always done a lot more things than basketball. Actually, I’m a writer by craft and I just happen to play basketball up until the point where it allowed me some potential avenues and opportunities.

STEFAN: I’m a writer too, Royce. And I can’t make millions of dollars, though.

ROYCE WHITE: Yeah. Well, it depends on what you write. [laughs]

STEFAN: In Jon’s film, we saw you struggle on draft day to even be in the room with your family and friends as picks were being announced. Help us understand better what someone with anxiety goes through. What are your triggers? What is it that makes life difficult for you?

ROYCE WHITE: The truth of the matter is that I don’t just deal with anxiety. And that’s something that the Rockets know, something that most people know now, is I also deal with OCD and I also deal with PTSD. A lot of us deal with PTSD and we don’t even know it. That’s the next cookie that’s going to crumble pretty soon. But those things all manifest themselves in really, really different ways. I mean with anxiety, obviously, I have a lot of uncertainties. It is very, potentially uncomfortable, not knowing. When I first started having anxiety, it was because I was very uncertain about my own health. Like, my actual physical health, like my heart and my lungs. I had a friend that collapsed and almost died due to a heart condition that they never knew about. So it was about my health. Now once I X’ed out all those issues, my anxiety has actually been pretty good. Now, I still have the occasional times where if I’m stressed out about something then it becomes hard to focus, or you get your sweaty palms. Now, the plane phobia itself is entirely different. That is independent, me not liking to fly. Probably has a lot to do with heights. Probably has a lot to do with trust. But the anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder in itself, has a lot of different symptoms. I mean it can affect your sleep, it can affect your eating habits, it can affect so many things that it’s hard to just pinpoint. It’s really, at the beginning of this, just a navigation. Like, you have to constantly be aware of it. You know, it’s like diabetes almost [laughs], you just have to be paying attention to so many things that you really have to try and eliminate the alarming stressors.

MIKE: That was good, I’m glad you said that, because it made me understand more. What was the trauma associated with the PTSD?

ROYCE WHITE: I watched my friend collapse and almost die, had to get a spinal tap open heart surgery. I had a friend die in a car accident. I’m very apprehensive about cars still, to this day. My mom was in an abusive relationship when I was young. There’s so many things that, you know, people go through that are very traumatic that they don’t even realize. And that’s where you talk about cause or you talk about message, is that, that’s the only message here. It’s that everybody needs to start checking in with themselves more on a mental health level and stop thinking that the idea that, Ah, whatever comes, you just push through it. Yeah, you can push through it. But are you pushing through it at 100 percent? Or are you kind of, slowly but surely, everything that happens to you that you don’t address just chips away from who you are. It just chips away, it leaves a scar, leaves a scar. And pretty soon, you’re not well.

MIKE: Royce, going back to the protocol that you wanted to implement with the Rockets, did the NBA Players Association have anything to say about that?

ROYCE WHITE: They said that the reality is that they don’t really believe that the NBA or teams would agree to it because it’s about control and it’s about power. And the conversations the NBPA and I have are very, are a lot more candid, than I would say on air. But that’s the gist of it, is that there’s always a battle for power. Now, the unfortunate thing is that that battle leads to subtle war between business and health.

MIKE: I just want to clarify though. From the conversations you had with the NBA Players Association, did they support or oppose you getting this protocol in place?

ROYCE WHITE: Oh, they support it. Yeah.

STEFAN: Can you understand that people may wonder whether you really want to play in the NBA?

ROYCE WHITE: No, I really don’t understand that. Again, I do a number of different things and if I didn’t want to play, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t even be fighting for it. I’d just call it quits, get a buyout, stop playing. I don’t have to continue to stand up for what’s right and what’s honest unless I want to play in this league. Now that’s always an option, to not play in the league. But I don’t believe it’s right that I have to choose between having a very hazardous work situation in this industry, and not playing at all. I don’t think those are choices that are logical or fair.

JOSH: Do you think that this disagreement with the Rockets and how it has played out, has that at all affected your anxiety disorder? Has it stayed relatively the same? Has it kind of waxed and waned with it?

ROYCE WHITE: I’d say it’s definitely heightened. I do a very good job, just because I’m an advocate for mental health and I do a lot of research and I know a lot about my own self. One of the things that you’ll, if you research hypervigilance, you’ll see that people with anxiety are one of the mental illnesses that develop like a very keen sense of their interior and exterior circumstances or whatnot. So, I do a very good job of maintaining my own anxiety now that I know that I have it. And ever since I’ve known that I have it, I do a good job of controlling it. But the way that I do that is to stay away from my triggers. And everybody has to know their triggers. Just like an alcoholic needs to stay away from a bar. Maybe I need to stay away from a plane. I need to know when one drink and two drinks turns into 20, right? So I do a good job of that on my own but ever since the situation has occurred, there’s a lot of stress and exacerbating type of things that are going on that are just out of my control. And I think until the situation’s resolved, I’ll continue to experience some exacerbating type symptoms. Like, I’ve never had migraines before and now I’m having migraines. And I usually don’t sleep well but now I’m really not sleeping well. And all those things are symptoms that in the long run, whether we want to admit it or not, those are things that lead to other health complications—fatalities. And when it comes to talking about life or health, you can’t just think about what’s convenient. You got to really think it out because you only have one life. You have to treat it very, very carefully.

STEFAN: So what are you doing now to make sure that if this is resolved, you can get back and contribute to this team? Are you treating this, and are the Rockets treating this as kind of a redshirt year where you figure out a system that would allow you to function and play and work on a daily basis and healthy environment?

ROYCE WHITE: I don’t think it’s a redshirt year. I think nobody knows when I’m going to come back, when it’s going to be resolved. And then until that happens I’m just going to continue to work out as I can and try and do everything I can to keep myself in a place where I can be ready to come back.

MIKE: If I may offer some totally unprofessional advice. When you want to avoid triggers and if this all works out, and you get back to basketball, you might want to take a break from Twitter. Not the outgoing messages. The incoming. Because some of the invective would get to anyone. And with someone with Twitter and anxiety problems, I’m sure it weighs upon you.

ROYCE WHITE: Let’s just be candid here. I get a lot of people that email me, tweet me, and say, “Hey, listen I was on the edge of the bridge. And I remembered what you said and I called 911 and I’m getting treatment.” Now maybe they’re full of it, maybe they’re not. But the point is that potentially, depending on what you say, you could save a life. You could help someone. And then you have the other side of the coin where people tweet me and say, “Hey, go kill yourself.” Or they put a smiley face with a gun next to it. OK, so, (a) I believe that the only way to battle negative energy is with positive energy. So I will continue to reach out to them and be positive with them because I’m sure that they need it a lot more than I do. And (b) it should warn everybody that not only are these people out there, but they’re out there in great numbers. If anything has come from this situation, it’s not that basketball players have mental illnesses too. It’s that our neighbors have mental illnesses too that we should be paying attention to, because they’re probably very out of control and very undiagnosed.

JOSH: So, wrapping this up, Royce. At a time when you’re trying to get to a place of health and happiness, if I asked you to think back to a moment in basketball when you were the happiest, what would you say that was?

ROYCE: That’s a tough one. For me, going 31-0 at Hopkins my senior year was really special just because the team went through so much adversity, with people not wanting us to be successful and saying that we were cheating by bringing players to the high school. That was really special for me, and coach [Ken] Novak was a great friend of mine and the Hopkins community was very supportive of me. But, the [most special] moment was us being able to get selected on Selection Sunday for the tournament. And I think that because everybody in our conference, all the coaches in our conference picked us at the bottom of the conference, we went into every game against the Kansases, against the Baylors, even against the teams like a Texas A&M. The underdog, and we were always getting bet against and somehow we found a way to pull together as a team and coach found a way to provide a cohesive system to allow us to be able to get to the tournament anyway despite all the doubters and I think that was really special not only for me but the whole community there in Ames, and my team especially.

STEFAN: Is basketball a safe place for you when you’re on the court?

ROYCE WHITE: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’ve played basketball since I was five, so you know, routine and consistency is big for people with anxiety and a basketball court is as routine as it gets for me.

JOSH: I don’t know if this is even a question, but just the thing, Royce, that was so striking to me with your answer about your best moments was about how they involved this kind of external negativity that was around you. In high school, with people questioning eligibility and in college people more questioning whether your team was good or not. And you talked about how with your teams you were able to kind of turn that into a real positive and sort of use basketball to help you through that. That just, I don’t even have a question—that was really striking and interesting to me.

ROYCE WHITE: For me, I always find joy in seeing other people happy and seeing other people feel that personal sense of achievement but within the collective. That’s really, if I would say anything, is the only gift I’ve gotten from basketball. The only real gift besides the superficial platforms that people talk about and the money and the opportunities, networks, and all that BS. The only real gift that I got is that sense of teamwork and camaraderie, and that’s universal. It’s not even about sports, it’s just life. And that’s something I’ve really grown to appreciate is, being … not only the team but the community, at Ames that was a huge, it’s like the community was experiencing something that you could see. You could really feel it. And that’s really special to me.

STEFAN: But it’s also fun to dunk on some dude, right?

ROYCE WHITE: Yeah, and talk a little trash and stick your tongue out and, you know, wear a red mohawk and act really crazy. That’s all fun, too. [laughs]

JOSH: Alright Royce, we wish you the best of luck with basketball or whatever else that you choose to do and that you are healthy and happy. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

ROYCE WHITE: Well, thank you guys, I appreciate it. Be well.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

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