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Royce White: the NBA’s Mental Illness Reform Advocate

January 30th, 2013 at 1:14 PM
By Matthew Heimlich

In a revealing interview on Grantland.com by Chuck Klosterman, Royce White tries to explain his passionate and complicated beliefs on his mental health issues that have prevented him from suiting up for the Houston Rockets in what should be his rookie year.  

White wants a "mental health protocol" whereby an independent psychiatrist (not a team affiliated physician) would determine whether he was mentally fit to play or practice for a team.  The Rockets refuse to make such arrangement for  White, worrying that it will create a precedent and that many players might want to have similar language worked into their contracts as a result.  White is adamant about his demands and has so far been unable to come to an agreement with the Rockets about how to manage his individual needs with the business certainty that ownership wants by knowing that their players will be out there every night.

White has an interesting and encompassing view of mental illness.  Klosterman confronts him with a National Institute of Health Study states that 26% of adults over 18 years old have some form of mental illness, and White states that the figure in the NBA is certainly higher than that.  To White, chemical imbalance, addiction and anxiety are all forms of mental illness.  To that point, White states the real question we should be asking is how many people don't have a mental illness.  

The problem is systemic and cultural, according to White – a function of our current American society where the overwhelming majority of people are stressed out trying to just get by in life.  White believes stress is the number one killer of people, and that untreated mental illness can have very severe health risks.  He is seeking to protect himself from certain activities that cause him undue stress and have himself constantly monitored by a mental health professional in an attempt to avoid these consequences.

He recognizes that many are not sympathetic to his cause (though everyone was aware of his anxiety disorder when he was drafted) and see the travel and stress associated with being an aspect of being a NBA player.  In addressing that issue, White relies on the American Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires that employers cannot discriminate against an employee on the basis of a known disability and are required to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability" unless such accommodations would pose an "undue hardship" on  the business.  "Reasonable accommodations" include "modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner and circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed" so that the disabled employee can perform "the essential functions of that position."  On the other hand, employers do not have to "eliminate essential functions" of a position or "lower production standards" to accommodate a disabled employee.  "Undue hardship" usually on the resources required to accommodate a disabled employee, but also can include reasonable accommodations that are "unduly extensive, substantial, or disruptive, or those that would fundamentally alter the nature or operation of the business."  

In White's case, both he and the  Rockets have good cases to make.  It is undisputed that that White's mental illness has been properly diagnosed and it could be argued that having an independent psychiatrist and travel schedule are reasonable accommodations under the circumstances that would enable him to perform the "essential function" of his employment, i.e. play basketball.  On the other hand, the Rockets could argue that flying with the team is an "essential function" of playing NBA basketball and that permitted him these special exceptions could create an environment (not only for Houston, but across the  league) which would interfere with the normal operation of the NBA.

Whether or not White's requests to be exempt from flying and have an independent psychiatrist determine his fitness to practice or play has not yet been determined.  White and the Rockets continue to try and resolve their differences outside the courtroom.  White recently reported to the NBA's  D-League, where he will play if and until he gets called up by Houston.   

Tags: Law, NBA, Sports, Sports Law

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