Royce A. White is a former NCAA basketball star at Iowa State University noted for speaking about his experiences with anxiety and mental illness and later battling the NBA on mental health policy. After a two-year hiatus from the game, he returned to play in the National Basketball League of Canada, where he earned a championship trophy and league MVP honors in his first year. Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University, where he teaches seminars on social inequality and sports. He is the author of the recent book Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport. Here, they discuss the recent explosion of mental health issues in the NBA and beyond, in the context of larger questions around injury, health, and professional sport.
NATHAN KALMAN-LAMB: In Game Misconduct, I argue that the emotional and psychological consequences of spectator sport are too often overlooked. The entire business model of professional sport is premised on the fact that the play — or rather, work — of athletes can produce enough meaning for fans that they are willing to invest hard-earned money in watching. It’s clear, from that standpoint, that there are emotional and psychological dimensions to athletic fandom connected to the alienation and isolation produced by life lived through capitalist social relations. But what about for the athletes themselves, who generate this meaning? Yes, there are serious physical implications that come from athletic labor: concussions and injuries of all sorts are becoming more and more a part of the conversation about professional sport. But there is also an emotional and psychological side of things. How honest was the NBA when you dealt with them about this? Michele Roberts, Executive Director of the NBA Players’ Association, has recently suggested that a new mental wellness initiative is underway in the NBA. She said, “We don’t want players to be discouraged from getting help when they need it because they’re concerned that it will get back to the team, or it may affect their play, or it may affect their next contract.” That’s obviously a sea change from what you experienced. Additionally, DeMar DeRozan of the San Antonio Spurs has spoken about his struggles with depression, as have Kevin Love, Kelly Oubre, and coach Tyronn Lue. I’m curious to hear if you think the NBA is starting to have the conversation you wanted it to and what capitalism has to do with the whole question of mental health and sport.
ROYCE A. WHITE: The NBA is willfully late to the conversation and certainly not engaging it in earnest. We must fight against this unnecessary lag time in all social issues with very viable improvements. Five years ago I suggested that a comprehensive mental health policy was needed. It was, and still is. I’ve offered full transparency into my own condition (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) to provide all of the available data I could to help shape that policy because I believe in honesty as an axiomatic principal, but also I think it’s the fundamental building block to engaging mental health. The league office, the union, and my team all said that a policy wasn’t possible. The higher-ups were afraid of setting a legal precedent. But when you really look at it, what precedent were they afraid to set? Treating mental health as a valid field of science and medicine? That’s appalling. There was a general dismissiveness toward the field of mental health right from the start. In our conversations, those across the table from me kept conflating accommodation with “special treatment.” I cautioned that it may be appropriate to further investigate just how prevalent mental health issues were in the NBA before calling it “special treatment” — it’s becoming clearer now that mental health priority should be the standard treatment, not special. Now they seem to agree, but mostly for the optics.
As far as the plan Michele Roberts has recently shared, it’s exactly what I laid out five years ago — word for word, actually. I’d be surprised if she didn’t use my document. I’m not confident that it’s tenable, though, because it doesn’t seem genuine in spirit. What is clear is the mental health topic in general is energized enough for the league to need a public position on it; that doesn’t equate to acknowledgment or responsibility in my book.
The bottom line is the players are fundamentally discouraged from seeking help out of a valid fear of it affecting their standing with teams. The players know that’s what will happen. Commissioner Adam Silver himself is worried this will happen. It’d be foolish to believe mental health status wouldn’t affect a player’s standing. Players know that once they’re drafted they will be constantly researched, monitored, and judged. I’m not saying teams shouldn’t monitor their players. Maybe we decide that we’re ok with mental health affecting a player’s standing. Physical injuries certainly affect standing, along with basically everything else a player does, from the music he likes to who he’s romantically linked with, or whether he’s willing to speak publicly about social issues. My only suggestion is that we educate ourselves on what mental health is, so if it has to affect a player’s standing, it can be determined by the most accurate scientific information available, not by superstition. That’s a beneficial approach for all parties involved.
I agree with most of that, and that’s why I think we have to talk about capitalism when we’re having this conversation. Let me be blunt. Capitalism cares about one thing only: the production of profit. That is literally the only objective of the system. It isn’t concerned about how profit gets made or who gets hurt. It certainly pays no regard to ethics. In the context of sport, it means that leagues like the NBA are only going to pay attention to mental health if it is an issue that jeopardizes the bottom line. If players can’t perform because of an issue related to mental health, that is going to incentivize an intervention from the league. But, if it is possible to extract production and performance without taking those steps — regardless of the personal toll that takes on players in the long run — then that is exactly what’s going to happen.
Mental health is already jeopardizing and affecting bottom lines for many capitalists. This causes a significant problem for the “capitalists only care if it affects the money” idea. It’s possible NBA ownership genuinely disputes or denies the effects on the bottom line. It’s also possible that they accept them. To me their incompetence on this is the bottom line. A more accurate description would be something like, “Capitalists are often only motivated to accept change to a system when they believe it explicitly benefits the bottom line and if that reform isn’t perceived as exorbitantly inconvenient.” The perception of inconvenience is what we can reshape dramatically. How inconvenient can it possibly be to let mental health professionals take the lead on mental health decisions?
There’s a system that could be employed where we could come much closer to the things we want with respect to mental health. It doesn’t have to be seen as an inconvenience. It might be more convenient in the long run.
Good point! Professional sport seems to be giving people what they want. Players make money. Fans get the pleasure and meaning they desire. Win-win. Yet, if we look at what’s happening a little more carefully, those wins aren’t quite as decisive as they seem. In my estimation — and I don’t think this is an exaggeration — spectator sport as it currently exists demands the sacrifice of players’ bodies. The former professional hockey players I spoke to for my book consistently told me that their bodies have fundamentally changed because of their work in professional sport. For some, this meant that they experienced devastating and repeated head injuries that have altered their cognition, even leading to drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. Others felt the consequences primarily in the fact that their bodies could no longer perform the basic functions required of everyday life, such as lifting up a child or doing a chore. Pain was something they came to take for granted as a basic requirement of existence. When you think about it from that perspective, it starts to feel more like a loss than a win for players. So, let me ask you, from your standpoint, is professional sport work?
I’d invite anybody sincerely asking that question to come work out with me for two hours in the low post. Set up the game so that if they can’t legally stop me from scoring they won’t get a paycheck. Any time you have an employer and an employee, it’s a labor situation. The thing that happens with professional sports is athletes have this huge microscope on their work. The spectacle is their work. And a common sentiment I’ve heard over the years is a resentment that athletes are being paid millions to play a kids’ game. What does the term “kid” in that imply? That professional sports is mostly just fun. It’s leisure, with little resemblance to “real work.” But the common fan has very little idea what goes into being a professional athlete. Actually, it’s the fan’s involvement that is mostly fun. I don’t want to discount the value of the fan, because without the fan there really isn’t a sport. I’ve always said it’s better when you have a community to play for. However, you probably don’t have a truly valid opinion on the nature of a professional sport if your most formal interaction is watching it at Applebee’s while you’re drinking a beer. So when people say things like, “I wish I had that job” or “I wish I could play a game for a living” in this condescending way, it’s kind of like … do you?
I totally agree. Again and again, the athletes I spoke with told me that fans don’t have any idea how hard it is to engage in athletic labor. They don’t understand, when they are screaming at players to play harder, play better, that those players are struggling to endure perpetual pain. They don’t understand that players have the same kinds of personal problems outside of the job that they do, problems that can’t always be compartmentalized. But, perhaps most of all, it seems to me that they fundamentally misunderstand the reality that the players they are watching are simply people doing their work.
State law in North Carolina — not exactly a bastion of Marxism — says that the duty of employers is to “furnish to each of his employees conditions of employment and a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious injury or serious physical harm to his employees.” Why doesn’t this apply to professional athletes? It seems to me that a basic occupational requirement of professional sport is the potential for serious injury and serious physical harm. Do you think there’s anything to this? You said yourself that professional sport needs fans because without their money the whole thing breaks down. We understand why the athlete needs the fan…
And the athlete wants the fan, let’s not sideline that! Vanity is certainly a real dynamic at work.
I don’t think athletes are ignorant of that, generally. The athletes I interviewed consistently understood how essential fans were to the industry they worked for. But, on the flipside, what does the fan need? Why is the fan spending this money? Because we’re not talking about art here. When you go to an art gallery, you have an aesthetic experience you might get pleasure from. People go to the ballet, they watch it, but there isn’t the same kind of culture built around that. They don’t think they’re part of the ballet troupe! They don’t say “we” about what they just watched. Something else is happening in sport. People are putting themselves in it, as if it means something really fundamental in their lives. By challenging sport in terms of the occupational health and safety related to mental health, you’re pulling back the curtain. How can fans sustain their illusions if you’re going to talk about what the reality of the job is?
People need to accept that their self-made illusions are in danger of being obliterated the more transparent a conversation becomes and the better our collective goals are articulated. Maybe that’s what the NBA and many others are trying so hard to defend against: the mirror. Look at what has happened to football. Imagine all the fans that yelled from the safe space (bleachers) that athletes were overpaid or greedy, projecting a disloyalty narrative on the athletes during contract disputes. I think in hindsight, with the knowledge we now have about concussions and the harm to their bodies, we can agree that was quite ridiculous.
A real question is do we see any value in deconstructing our illusions about labor in profession sports? If given the choice, would we choose the illusion? Clearly, the answer is different for different people. I choose reality, but more and more people are selecting detachment. Sports is fundamentally a mechanism of detachment. Is sports about teamwork? Yes. Is it about hard work? Of course. Is it an example of having common goals? Not so fast. There are a panoply of human agendas playing out through sports, some constructive, some not so much. All under the guise that the propelling force is a desire to win. Some people just want to go to the games and get blasted and yell. Identity, alcohol, gambling, sexual interests, etc. are all on the table. Detachment is certainly a major component of sports. This plays a big role in the nature of the relationship between players, fans, and leagues.
So, given all that, what brought you back to basketball? Why did you decide to play in London, Ontario?
There’s a monster in me. I have a competitive itch that I haven’t found a sufficient replacement for. It was hard to sit back and just watch the game, especially because I know I can play it at such a high level. I still haven’t been able to fill that void. I’m learning that some of that void has to do with my ego. Playing the game at a competitive level is what brought me back, but the feeling of playing in front of a crowd is definitely a part of it. Once you experience that, it’s etched in you — an operating system software that’s downloaded.
It also prompts another intriguing question: what are the psychological implications of 10,000 plus individuals pouring energy into 10 players on a court? Sports aside, I think that is the next ceiling for humanity: consciousness and the collective consciousness. What impact do these massive tribal events have in that context? I don’t have a clue, but it’s exciting territory. I’m very interested in watching the development of our understanding of energy. All those who don’t believe in energy or think of it as some form of mysticism haven’t played sports at the highest level. There’s a saying in basketball, “the ball finds energy.” If you’ve played, you understand that there’s an unexplainable feeling you get when a crowd roars. At least for me, it has had that effect.
I don’t think you’re alone in those feelings. Player after player I spoke with described to me the rush of playing in front of a crowd. It seems to me that it has an almost narcotic effect. How can anyone experience the euphoria of channeling the aspirations of thousands of people and then not feel a sense of loss when it’s gone? How would anyone under those circumstances not want to chase that feeling? That’s the problem with spectator sport for me: it asks too much of athletes — too much pain, too much injury, too much humanity. So, with all this said, where has your activism taken you today?
I’m going to try and change the world for the better as many more times as I can. We changed the mental health conversation for good. Sports can’t ignore that any longer. And it’s not just about the players getting treatment. Professional sports shapes the dogma of youth sports. Sports is one of the primary educators of young people and it’s one of the last pillars of physical interaction in a world where a lot of person-to-person connection is being lost to technology.
I’m the most politically feared athlete of my generation for standing up for this issue. I’ve been blacklisted. The fight continues on that front. At the end of the day, I believe in people. We’ve done wonders, and there’s still much we can achieve. I believe the final frontier for humanity is existential, not extraterrestrial. I leave open the possibility that the two are linked.