It's not likely you’ve heard much about Royce White. And there’s good reason for that. He’s a mere rookie, currently playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the D [developmental] League team of the Houston Rockets. So far, his professional career has totaled about twenty minutes of court time.
In a sports world dominated by the internationally recognized one-word monikers of LeBron, Kobe, and Durant, White’s career has, thus far, been rendered relatively insignificant by comparison. An unknown blip flying below the radar of our sports media storm of fantasy league stats and 24-hour highlight reel glam coverage.
Except White is not your average, everyday player struggling to make it as a pro. For one thing, he is suffering from mental illness. For another, he’s very outspoken about it. And he refuses to sideline (no pun intended) his personal safety for the business bottom line of the NBA, even if that means ruining his so-called career, and kissing away millions of dollars in salary, because of that stance.
In a recent interview with Chuck Klosterman, on the excellent sports/culture ESPN off-shoot Grantland, White suggests that a majority of people today have some sort of mental illness, whether we are admitting it to ourselves, let alone attempting to treat our symptoms, or not. And that this effectively normalized epidemic suggests that there is something wrong with our society, more specifically with our capitalist society.
“That doesn't make it normal,” says White. “If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn't make it normal … the problem is growing, and it's growing because there's a subtle war — in America, and in the world — between business and health. It's no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.”
When Klosterman follows up by asking, “So … this is about late capitalism?” White answers in the affirmative: “Definitely. Definitely.”
Wow. Marxist philosophical analysis and the ability to take the ball to the rim as well. I think I just found my new favorite non-Celtic hoops player.
“Until [this] recent interview,” Dave Zirin writes at The Nation, “it wasn’t clear just how politically thoughtful, serious and even revolutionary an athlete we have in Royce White. For White, this isn’t just about his struggle or changing how NBA teams treat mental illness. It’s about something far greater.”
“He understands that the NBA commodifies its athletes,” Nathan Kalman-Lamb blogs for the Left Hook Journal. “He also grasps that, as a consequence, the league has little regard for the long-term health and well-being of its players (beyond the short-term ability to put them on the floor).”
“The reality is that American businesses are built on the idea of cutting overhead,” continues White. “So if a team or a business can save money by making things less safe, they're going to do that. They don't care.”
This really gets to the proverbial heart of the matter: that there is an innate conflict of interest between a franchise owner’s bottom line, and the bottom line of why sports fans watch a team of players. And that what is good for business, is not always in the best interest of the team, and therefore, of the fans who follow them.
We hear all the time, usually from star athletes facing trade rumors halfway through their season, that big time sports are a business. And they are. But, of course, no one watches the games, or follows their favorite athletes and teams because sports are a business. We watch and care and obsess because of the art of the play, the virtue of the competition, and the thrill of seeing what will happen between the lines of those games. Regardless of how much money the team is, or isn't making (its owner(s)).
And while many, if not most of us recognize that athletes are both stars and commodities of the games we, as spectators, love to watch, the fact that rookie Royce White (or should we elevate him to one-name status? Royce!) is making a name for himself by addressing this capitalist sports complex conundrum straight on seems a very big deal indeed.