Rooting for Royce White
According to recent research, it is estimated that approximately 40 million American adults suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. That’s nearly 18 percent of the population over the age of 18. I assume that number is higher than most of us would have suspected; and I also assume the reason we underestimate the number of those afflicted is partly because so many of us that suffer from anxiety do so quietly and privately.
As someone who has dealt with anxiety and panic attacks for most of my adult life, I speak from experience. In fact, I have close friends who will learn of my anxiety for the first time only if they happen to stumble across this paragraph.
I certainly won’t attempt to speak for everyone battling the disease, but I will freely admit that one reason I rarely share my experiences with others is due to a certain level of shame/embarrassment that accompanies openly admitting that I occasionally become exceedingly anxious at the mere thought of seemingly mundane tasks that wouldn’t phase my wife or my five-year-old niece.
Unsurprisingly, many doctors who have studied anxiety estimate that the number of undiagnosed anxiety sufferers are significant, especially among males. Studies show that some of these undiagnosed individuals often turn to alcohol or other drugs in order to self-medicate and dull the symptoms. Sadly, today’s society often promotes a form of masculinity where “being afraid” is tantamount to being “weak,” or worse, in the opinion of some.
Which brings me to a blog post penned by Darnell Mayberry, a well-respected NBA beat writer who covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Oklahoman. Yesterday, upon hearing the news that Royce White, a rookie who was recently drafted by the Houston Rockets, did not show up to training camp, Mayberry authored a controversial column. Here is the link.
For those not familiar with his background, White suffers from severe anxiety disorder. White, to his credit, has been extremely forthcoming about his illness (he even allowed a fascinating inside look into the gift and the curse that was the day he got drafted in to the NBA), which has obviously impacted all facets of his life, including traveling to and from games by plane while at Iowa State. Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, the man who made the final decision to draft White, was fully aware of the unique issues and potential problems the Rockets would face when they selected White with the 16th overall pick in June. Houston was getting one of the most talented and versatile young players on the planet (Royce, as a freshman, led his college team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals), but they were also getting a young man that would have to deal with a unique set of challenges throughout is career.
There are very few players in all of professional sports who publicly wage their war with anxiety. Unfortunately, many pros suffer in silence like the rest of us. Part of this rationale undoubtedly has to do with the fact that anxiety disorder is so profoundly misunderstood by so many. For instance, Mr. Mayberry refers to White as the “definition of a head case.”
Mayberry writes: “So not only did dude not show up to his first day on the job (media day), but he also skipped the first team flight and essentially said “Nah, I’m good” to the first day of practice.”
I envision the scene somewhat differently. I imagine White flushed with panic somewhere, his heart beating out of his chest, his knuckles whiten as his hands grip the chair he is sitting in, extra and unnecessary adrenaline coursing through his veins. Most likely on the edge of tears, White is praying and wishing that this debilitating and merciless fear that is quickly overtaking his mind would just leave him alone. “This was supposed to be a new beginning, a fresh start. Why is this happening… why now?” I imagine White asking himself, feeling some combination of agony and anger. For those that have ever felt the cruel clutch of anxiety, they know this scenario isn’t all that far-fetched.
It’s hard for me to believe to that White willingly skipped the team flight and said simply, “Nah, I’m good.” Whatever the exact specifics of the situation White found himself in earlier this week, “I’m good” is typically not a phrase proclaimed by someone in the midst of panic.
White’s anxiety has been described as some kind of “character flaw;” that other teams were too smart to invest a first-round pick in someone as damaged and defective as White.
I’ll vehemently disagree with this characterization. If anything, the audacious courage White has exhibited as a young man publicly confronting a frightening situation should be applauded and viewed as a testament to his inner-fortitude. I think it speaks volumes about his character, and his ability to attack anxiety head-on bodes well for his future, both on and off the court.
Society in general is all too often intolerant and unforgiving. In the sphere of sports in particular, it’s much worse. The “myth of manliness” forces itself upon those playing and covering the games. “Don’t show any pain… rub some dirt on it… don’t ever show any weakness.” These are the creeds that those that spend their days inside locker rooms for a living are forced to subscribe to. It’s why for years countless NFL players ran back onto the field despite still feeling the effects of a concussion. And possibly why many of those same players refused to seek professional help after the subsequent brain injuries induced depression. “Real men don’t see shrinks…” right?
This absurd, but undeniably prevailing ideology is one of the reasons why there so many gay athletes that are unfortunately forced to spend their careers in the closet. Eventually, there will be a Jackie Robinson-esque barrier-breaker that is somehow strong enough to endure the inevitable slings and arrows the first openly gay pro athlete will encounter. But once those first few brave and bold athletes clear the path a bit, it will likely ease the way for those that follow their lead.
While it’s a somewhat sloppy comparison because anxiety may not hold the same stigma as homosexuality, mental disorders are clearly still misunderstood in society and the sports world in particular. White is now on the frontlines, courageously forging a path for others. In fact, he often tweets (@Highway_30 is his Twitter handle) about his daily ordeals and re-tweets advice to his followers (kids and adults alike) with the hash tag #AnxietyTrooper, a rallying cry for those seeking support and/or encouragement.
On Tuesday, White spoke with FOX 26 Sports in Houston and explained: “We are trying to figure out a plan for me to be healthy and successful long-term,” White said. “It’s not really anything that’s going on right now. It’s more of trying to take a pro-active approach and trying to put together a solid plan.”
Late Tuesday evening, Rockets GM Daryl Morey issued the following statement: “We are committed to Royce’s long term success and we will continue to support him now and going forward.”
Most criticism of White comes from a place of sheer ignorance when discussing anxiety disorders. I had a teacher tell me once that it’s somewhat unfair to get mad at ignorance itself. In fact, one huge blessing I have gleaned from my personal dealings with anxiety is increased empathy. Who knows what the person next to you is going through or what they have battled to get where they are.
However, ignorance is no excuse for making others feel marginalized or ostracized. And that is why we need to confront these antiquated ideas and sentiments when we see them expressed, which is what drove me to write this column.
It probably would have been easier to just keep quiet and continue chugging along. Fortunately, at this stage of my life, anxiety actually doesn’t adversely impact my day-to-day life. But, it’s there. It always will be. And it is obviously much, much worse for millions of others, many of them suffering in silence.
Lastly, as a journalist, one of the principal rules of the business is that we are not supposed to root for the teams or individuals we cover. The time-tested cliché informs us: “A respected scribe never cheers from the press box.” Well, unfortunately, I’m going to break that rule on occasion this season. So, do me a favor and let me slide if you see smile during a Rockets game at some point this winter.
I freely and proudly admit, I’ll be rooting for Royce.