Editor’s Note: I did not write this alone. This was a result of many conversations over the past couple of days with colleagues, individuals managing mental illnesses themselves, and of course, basketball fans. Confidentiality is important, and I won’t share any names, but know that I am very grateful for your time and your willingness to share your opinions and experiences with me.
Whenever I read a story or a statement about Royce White (and some very good ones have been written, but also some pretty terrible ones as well), I cannot process the information presented as an NBA fan, or even an NBA blogger. Instead, as I read about Royce White’s public battle with the Rockets organization over reasonable accommodations and consistent support — something the Rockets claim they have provided, and then some — I read through the lens of vocational rehabilitation.
A bit of background. I have worked in disability services in some form or fashion since 2007. I’ve done lots of things for many different agencies, working with children, adults, and seniors with a variety of physical and mental disabilities. I now am a behaviorist, and am getting ready to head back to school to get all board-certified and shit. It’s a great job, and I’m excited to make it a career.
My first job — and the one closest and dearest to my heart — was as an employment specialist at a vocational rehabilitation non-profit in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I worked at said agency for a year as a 22 year old AmeriCorps volunteer, managing a fairly sizable caseload. It was my introduction into the field, and though I had my critiques, I learned a lot, and found it to be a valuable practice for both my consumers and myself.
Now, vocational rehabilitation (and this is my own definition) is a process that enables individuals with various physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities to overcome barriers that impede their abilities to find and maintain employment over the long-term. Vocational rehabilitation (or, “voc rehab”) operates on the model that work, and everything that goes into work like learned skills, consistent schedules, showcased strengths, augmented skill deficits, and earned income, can serve therapeutic purposes that will allow the individual to better conduct self-care and gain increased independence. Like anything, there are many shortcomings to voc rehab — most of the jobs attained were fairly menial, many of my clients were exploited and mistreated by their new bosses, and most employers hired my clients for the tax credits, not for their skills — and it exists as a part of a system that many would (correctly) argue is completely broken. At the same time, there is both financial and therapeutic value to work, and I enjoyed being able to help my clients in their search for steady employment.
As an employment specialist working with adults with serious and persistent mental illnesses, I wore many hats. Though every client was different — different diagnoses, different work histories, different backgrounds, different levels of functional communication, different modes of transportation — the process would look pretty uniform across the board. After doing intake and a few weeks of learning more about a client’s strengths, weaknesses, and skills, we would work on crafting cover letters and resumes, and hammer home interview techniques and networking skills while we applied for jobs. On the side, we would talk about the pros and cons of disclosing a disability to a potential (or current) employer as a way to secure reasonable accommodations provided for under the Americans with Disabilities Act. And in the (rare) event of an interview, and the (rarer) good fortune of a hire, I would remain in constant contact with both client and employer to make sure that both sides were happy with the arrangement.
Indeed, I was not always happy with what I was doing. While some of my consumers were attending job coaching sessions out of their own volition, most of them were in my office (well, cubicle) due to a court order from either the county or the state. My clients were often put in difficult situations, asked to apply for jobs that they had little to no interest in save for the paycheck, and then furthermore, asked to disclose disabilities that often were causes of anxiety and embarrassment in their own lives. The jobs themselves were rarely high-paying gigs; mostly part-time janitorial, security, food service and hotel support positions on the second and third shift. Employers could often be impatient and ignorant, and in some cases, exploitative of their workers. This could lead to situations where my client could find themselves presented with whole new challenges in their lives, and whole new barriers to managing their disabilities. Sometimes, it didn’t work out.
When that would happen, my job would become a lot more difficult. I would have to talk to the employer, find out what was going on, and see if there was any way to address issues that had arisen since the hire. They would be angry or fed up with my client. I’d talk them down (and curse them out in my head). I would assess whether reasonable accommodation had been made or not. And, if the employer was willing to overlook whatever was going wrong, I’d help mend the relationship, and get the two sides to work together.
But I’d also have to learn what was going on with my client, and invariably there’d be more questions than answers. What was making this difficult? Was it the job? Was it the disability? Was it the commute? Was it the meds? Seeking answers to these questions would be most of the battle, as I would have to broach contentious subjects while simultaneously supporting my client. It was hard to instruct while advocating, and I never perfected the art. I always liked trying, but sometimes, I just blew it.
With that in mind, I wonder what my meeting with Royce White would look like. That is, if he were one of my clients.
I imagine I’d like Royce White a lot. Of course, if he were a client, I would have to adhere to the guidelines that HIPAA lays out, so Royce would simply be known as “RW” in my case notes. It would be a cold descriptor for a very warm, dynamic individual. Indeed, he seems like a very smart guy who takes great pride in who he is, what he thinks about, and where he comes from. I would be very impressed with his outgoing nature, and humbled by his willingness to self-disclose his disability to his friends, family and peers. By all accounts he is a hard worker and talented at his craft. It would be a pleasure helping him find work that accentuated his strengths while positively addressing his weaknesses.
The first thing I’d ask is: “how are things going at work?” At this point, I’d imagine Royce would say something like, “not so great” or “could be better.” He might even say that they’re terrible, and that he’s having a really hard time at work. I’d know this already; likely I would’ve gotten a call from one of White’s managers about his attendance and punctuality on the job. They would’ve mentioned that Royce hadn’t been to work in about a week and that he was being docked pay for each day that he was either failing to show up or letting his employer know where he was when he was supposed to be at work. They would’ve also probably directed my attention to Royce’s twitter feed, filled with disparaging remarks about the Rockets organization, as well as defiant declarations about living with anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They’d express concern about what he puts on social media, and how that reflects upon him as an employee. This would be Royce’s opportunity to tell me about these things on his own. Given his proud, outgoing nature, I’d imagine he would. If he didn’t, I’d bring it up myself.
My next question would likely be something like, “are you feeling properly supported in your job?” I’d ask whether he felt reasonable accommodations had been made, in respect to the Americans with Disabilites Act (which all employers must adhere to) and other labor laws in the state of Texas. Based upon what we’ve seen thus far, he’d almost certainly say “no.” He’d assert that the Rockets went back on the agreements they, as a duo (or we as a trio, if I was involved in the placement) made earlier in the autumn. He’d say the Rockets had been inconsistent with their support and were not prepared to actually make provisions for Royce to do the job in a way that would make him successful. He’d talk negatively about the prevalence of flying on planes, as well as the re-assignment to the D-League to get more playing time. He’d offer harsh assessments of his bosses — coach Kevin McHale, general manager Daryl Morey, and especially owner Leslie Alexander, who quipped that “it’d be unfortunate to lose a draft pick” when asked about White’s struggles — who were seemingly turning their backs on Royce and throwing him under the very bus they had promised he could use. I’m not sure if Royce would be angry, sad, frustrated, frightened, confused or unmoved as he listed the ways things weren’t working in his job. It would be hard to hear, in any case.
At that point my task would be to get an idea of what White would like his job to look like on a daily basis. I’d want to know what specifics would need to happen for him to succeed in his position with the Rockets. Not his position on the court, mind you. I’m talking about his job, and his ability to get to work, stay at work, do work at work, and have a safe assumption that he could go back to work and earn his paycheck the next day, and the next day, and the next day. You know, the things that we assume are givens, if we don’t mess up too much on the job, or if we know we have the trust and support of our employers (and this is rare, don’t get me wrong). I’m not sure what Royce would say. There’d definitely be some mention of air transportation. There’d likely be something about eliminating fines as a form of punishment, since taking something away (without augmenting it with a functional replacement) is about as untherapeutic as can be. There might even be an assertion that Royce could never do time in the D-League, since the experience, according to Royce, is anxiety-producing.
Then things would get really hard, for both of us. I’d go through the job duties of being a forward with the Houston Rockets again; all of the things that a typical NBA player is expected to do when they begin their lives as a professional basketball player. I’d review them one-by-one with Royce so he knew exactly what I expected from him as a player, and what his employer expected of him as a person they were (assumedly) trying to accommodate I’d emphasize that timeliness and punctuality is important, so it’s important to be on time, and open and honest about any absences. I’d emphasize that accepting criticism and mentorship is paramount to skill acquisition and player development, so one has to be careful about what they say, either privately or publicly, about their employers. I would remind Royce that self-care is important, and that if he is feeling anxious or unsupported, he should attempt to take structured, sanctioned time off and away from the job (remembering, myself, that time spent away from the team would make it that much harder to integrate Royce into the fabric of the workplace). And, most importantly, I would say, apologetically but firmly, that I did think the Rockets were making an honest attempt to include him in their future plans, and that, as far as I could tell, that stance had not changed since they inked their original agreement back in early October.
My next — and likely final — question would be the hardest one of all: “do you think you can do this job, Royce?” I would ask him honestly and non-judgmentally, reminding him that there are lots of vocations in the world, and that we don’t usually land career-work in our first real job. I’d again lay out the specific job duties that could be accommodated, like travel and counseling services, and the ones that must remain intact due to the nature of the job, like D-League assignments and open (and professional) lines of communication (that is, griping on Twitter to your followers is not the same as seeking specific help from your employer). I would say these are things that cannot be compromised, and to accommodate them would be unreasonable given the nature of the job.
It would be at that point that I would recommend to Royce that if he didn’t think he could meet these bare minimum requirements, and that if he felt that these feelings regarding the Rockets, and more broadly his position as a player within the National Basketball Association, were uniform across the board and not simply a “bad period” that would eventually get better with treatment, support, and therapy, that we should begin to look for different opportunities in less stressful fields. I would lay out a series of reasons that I felt that he should consider seeking different jobs. I would be very, very nervous as I stated these reasons, as I wouldn’t be entirely sure of my own advice. But it would be my job to give it, and give it I would.
First, I would say that I reluctantly agreed with the Rockets; that the accommodations they had offered were, at the very worst, a good start, and that more work would be done on both sides to make sure that everyone was living up to their part of the bargain. I’d applaud them for not engaging in a public tit-for-tat over the legitimacy of Royce’s mental health issues, like the Dallas Mavericks did with Lamar Odom. I would also agree with the Rockets that, if skill acquisition and vocational training were the primary duties for Royce at this given time, and if his paychecks would remain stable and regular, that the best place for him would be the D-League. There he would learn valuable, necessary skills, be a leader, gain some perspective on what it was like to be a professional athlete, and eventually would return to the Rockets in a better place to contribute (at least on the court).
Secondly, I would issue my concerns about his ability to succeed over the long-term, given the troubling patterns presented in his first few months as an NBA player and member of the Rockets organization, as well as the inescapable natures of the job. In particular, I would share my reservations about the specific possibility that he could get traded to a different team in the NBA. What would the plan be, then? What happens when he has to set up a whole new set of accommodations? How would he fare with brand new teammates and friends? How would he adjust to a new city? Different times, locations, and reasons to fly? Different practice times? Different therapists? Different responsibilities? It would be a poor therapeutic fit. There would be little that his support team, his family, or even his labor union could do to void a trade or deem it incompatible with a larger plan. Simply put, I would express my concern that if he were traded or waived, there would be little that we could do to reverse the decision and make sure he was properly supported. It would be a poor therapeutic move, and for someone who takes therapy and well-being very seriously, I would expect he would agree, if only begrudgingly.
Lastly, I would remind him that he had many other skills and attributes that would enable him to be successful in life. No, he wouldn’t earn millions as a basketball player in the NBA, the highest paying basketball league in America (and I suspect that fact, alone, would get him to reconsider the plan moving forward). But he has two years of college coursework complete, and would have no difficulty re-enrolling and finishing his degree. He is eloquent, smart and charming. Clearly, he is driven and motivated, and plays the role of mental health advocate well. I would argue that he has already touched more lives, and influenced the opinions of more people, as an outspoken public celebrity than he ever has as a 6’8”, 240 lb small forward who is unlikely to see consistent court time in his career. I would — tactfully, gently — assert that his strengths are not putting the ball in the basket, but instead being the voice and muscle for people who are marginalized; in their communities, in their jobs, and in our legislation.
I’m not sure how Royce would respond to this.
As of Saturday, all signs seem to point to Royce following my advice. In a conversation with ESPN’s Colleen Dominguez, Royce stated that he was ready to walk away from the NBA, pending a conversation with Daryl Morey on Monday. Royce, true to form, eloquently stated his reasons why:
“We all look at the stories that happen later and go, ‘Man, you just wish this guy was able to communicate his problems,’ ” White said. “Or you wish somebody would just’ve talked to him and wished that the communication would’ve been there.
“Well now the communication’s there and there’s still a problem, right? That means the problem isn’t us. The problem is the art of the business, right? At no point will I compromise my health in the interest of business.”
When I wrote about Ron Artest a few months back, I asserted that balance is important for those managing serious and persistent illnesses. I wrote that a person needs to strike a balance between their personal and professional lives, and find activities that can be therapeutic, calming, and beneficial for physical and mental health. At the time, I acknowledged that basketball, as a sport and recreational activity, may have therapeutic benefits, and could be used as a way to balance out the stressful aspects of one’s professional life. I wasn’t so sure about basketball as a job. I wasn’t sure that one could separate the pleasurable from the professional. I wasn’t sure it really could work at that point in time.
In a strange way, I feel the same about Royce. Obviously, Royce loves basketball, and is a talented basketball player. He must be: he was a first round draft pick who was highly regarded by his team, as well as the “experts” who had watched him in college. I don’t watch college ball, but the highlights depict a compelling inside-outside guy, a sort of Paul Pierce-like offensive talent that can do just about everything, and seems to live for big moments. Certainly, there is an intriguing player embodied in the visage of Royce, an unrealized talent that could play a key role in an exciting new Rockets squad built around James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
But right now, Royce seems far more focused about finding himself as a man — specifically, a high-profile man with a disability that he chose to self-disclose, not just to his employers, but everyone — than he is about starting a career and earning a lot of money. Think about it, and really, think about yourself; it’s not that hard to believe. The guy is 22 years old, fresh out of college, living in a new city, working with new people, and performing a job that clearly produces great amounts of anxiety due to it’s highly visible and scrutinized nature. I, remember how out-of-sorts I felt after I moved to Minneapolis after college, unsure of who I was, what I was doing, or where I was going with my life. I can’t imagine functioning “typically” in those circumstances, let alone if I was managing a serious and persistent mental illness.
Royce is younger than Ron, and has lived far less. This is his first job, and man, is it a doozy of a job. The hours are long, the demands are high, and the payoff, though great, comes with gravely ambivalent side effects. Your activities are staunchly supervised and criticism is a near constant. There’s little autonomy and your daily routine is hardly variable. And, of course, there is a lot of travel. Continuous, almost. This is a part of the job that cannot be ignored; perhaps accommodated to an extent, but not fully ignored. There is no way around the air travel completely. In addition, there’s no way around the fact that at any moment, Royce could be traded to a different team, to play a different role, and would have to rework his entire plan, again. And a bus probably wouldn’t take him there, either.
A very good friend of mine, who himself manages a mental illness that was exacerbated by a stressful vocational experience, shared some wise words about Royce, and some experiences about completing difficult jobs that may or may not be a good therapeutic fit. In coping with the daily difficulties that come with a stressful job, said friend stated that “some people need their game to mature, some people need themselves to mature.” It was poignant to me, as I could not think of a better way to describe Royce at this point in his life, and in his career.
Many people across America deal with anxiety, and other mental illnesses, on the job. They are able to do so through a variety of ways, including medication, self-care, and coping techniques. Every day, either consciously or subconsciously, they make the decision that some sort of benefit — be it financial, emotional, or otherwise — outweighs the destructive and often debilitating effects of the disorder. These daily choices come through years of trial and error, countless peaks and valleys, and many terrible moments where everything seems totally lost, meaningless, and broken. But they make it through — if only temporarily — and get out of bed and do their jobs, hopefully with a support network cheering them on the entire time.
This moment may come for Royce, in time. Perhaps this is just another blip on the radar; a moment of struggle for an individual learning how to manage their illness as an adult. But perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s time for Royce to walk away.
If he does, we will support him. It may not be the right choice in our minds. But I have no doubt — none, whatsoever — that it is the bravest.