Royce White Is Awesome, But What Exactly Does He Want From Us And The NBA?

  • Matt Rudnitsky

Houston Rockets first-round draft pick Royce White is a polarizing name in NBA circles because of his highly-publicized battle with Rockets management over their handling of his anxiety disorder. He’s currently playing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League. He hasn’t had a great start, but he still has plenty of time. From what I’ve seen, the vast majority of intelligent media members support him. They really want him to succeed, because, by all accounts, he’s a very good person who unequivocally means well. I personally want him to succeed as much as anyone. Just like much of the (intelligent) media wants a prominent openly gay athlete to thrive, we want a prominent athlete who is open about his anxiety disorder to prosper.

White recently spoke with Dave Zirin of The Nation on Zirin’s “Edge of Sports” radio show on SiriusXM. As usual, White had some interesting things to say. But he also revealed why there are people who badmouth him or just disagree with him (the interview mentions Bill Simmons, for one). I think he’s a bit misguided, not as clear as he thinks he is, and hurting himself when he has a lot of potential to foster change.

You can listen to the entire interview here, or read much of the transcript here. I’ll post some highlights and why I think White has some evolving to do.

First, here’s Zirin’s introduction. It describes White perfectly.

Royce White is an NBA player with a cause. The first round draft pick of the Houston Rockets sat out the first half of the season in protest of the ways the team handled issues related to his mental health. Now he is back, playing for the team’s D-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but he hasn’t stopped speaking out about the NBA, mental health issues and the way capitalism impacts our world… Royce White considers himself a “humanist” and as you will see, his humanity shines through.

This is why White is so likable. He’s a staunch humanist – he values human beings and rational thought. Those things are good. But he says some controversial – and occasionally, I think, misguided – stuff. So, when we are forced to describe him with one word, the most-accurate word is probably indeed “polarizing.”

Sports—especially professional sports—is a microcosm of capitalism. And capitalism is, in my opinion, in its form as it stands today, one of the things that stands in human welfare’s way. And, the reason being is because it’s just a by-default sense of selfishness; I have to one-up the person next to me at some point to get ahead. And I’m always striving to get ahead. The person next to me becomes expendable, and those are things that I just don’t believe in. Not to say that I don’t believe in capitalism. I believe that capitalism is a great system and it gives us all something to strive for and it allows us to dream. But, it needs to be reformed. And, the way it stands today is very human-welfare-unfriendly.

This bothers me a bit (maybe it’s the economics major in me). White isn’t a Marxist since he says capitalism can be fixed, but he agrees with Marx’s initial critique of capitalism, i.e. that the owners of the means of production have an inherent advantage, and workers are helplessly exploited. This is a perfectly reasonable argument, and doesn’t make White a communist or a horrible person or anything negative at all.

But: White’s view that “Sports is a microcosm of capitalism” is exaggerated and misguided, especially in the case of the NBA. There are many problems to be had with the economics of the NBA, but it’s far from a capitalistic entity. It’s actually pretty socialist. We know that the big markets support the small markets through the luxury tax, that parity is encouraged (to a degree) at the expense of a free market, and that stars are probably underpaid to make things fairer for the little guys. David Stern is dictator-like. These things are potential issues, but they don’t have anything to do with what White is saying. His criticisms of capitalism don’t really apply to the NBA.

He obviously wants teams to go the extra yard when dealing with players with mental illnesses. But I don’t see how this fits into his misguided view of the NBA as evil capitalists. The NBA, as does any American profit machine, acts with the main goal of making money. But it does it within socialist constraints, from the draft, to Bird Rights, to luxury taxes and other rules. At the same time, it acts as a monopoly and restricts 18-year olds from getting paid fairly. It is a confounding mix of capitalism and greed and socialism and fairness, with plenty of flaws, but some commendable rules. If the NBA was a capitalistic entity in the way Marx describes, there’d be no collective bargaining and the players would be screwed.

But players have significant power, because they are the product. They aren’t expendable workers like White implies. The NBA isn’t the typical capitalistic power that Marx and White accurately scold. Players may be exploited to a degree, but this is a melodramatic analogy. Also, NBA players are far from equal. White could argue that a player like LeBron James owns the means of production and is an evil capitalist, because he’s so damn important to the bottom line. White could argue that LeBron is the enemy, and Royce White is the exploited worker. The whole thing is complex, and White isn’t really advancing any sort of cause, here.

He seems to be mixing his views of capitalism and America as a whole with his problems with the NBA, and I don’t think they have anything to do with each other. I don’t get how any of this applies to the NBA. He says the competitive nature of the NBA restricts human welfare. What exactly does he mean? The Rockets have incentive to help Royce White, because he’s a talented basketball player. If he works hard, is good enough, and they help him, he’ll get paid and succeed. He obviously needs to play well enough to justify the help. How does capitalism tie in with the Rockets’ handling of his disorder, while tying in with the NBA and sports and America? I don’t get it.

If Royce White wants the NBA and/or America to change, he needs to define his causes for each, separately and clearly. He just seems to have a lot of problems with “the system.” His statements come from the right place, but he’s not being clear:

Here’s the deal, we all understand the dynamic of the few having control of most of the resources and the money and power and it’s a brilliant system that they set up… But the reality is that for 98%, the quality of life that we endure is so tumultuous, and it’s so drama-filled, and the messages we receive are so drama-filled and so tumultuous that it’s no surprise to anybody in the medical world why it is that we’re experiencing what I believe to be a mental health epidemic… I think that mental health represents one of the greatest examples of the need for obligation, because with mental health, you don’t just stay in your lane. Somebody else’s issues become your issues and you have to be more conscious of how you interact with someone else, as opposed to just thinking about yourself.

Again, he’s conflating a bunch of different beliefs and causes and not making a ton of sense. He’s arguing the same thing Marx argued, the logical point that the people who control resources profit by exploiting workers in capitalist enterprises. But that’s clearly not the case in the NBA. The players receive 50% of basketball-related income, according to the new CBA. You can argue if that’s fair or not, but the players aren’t being exploited. They aren’t receiving subsistence wages while owners profit, like in Marx’s example. Royce White isn’t in this 98%. This doesn’t have anything to do with the NBA, his fight with the Rockets, or anything else he’s personally involved in. He’s mixing up his messages. Again, it’s hard to see what he wants, exactly. And that’s Royce White’s problem.

There’s almost a sense of how dare I speak about politics as an athlete? Or how dare I speak about politics at 21? And I think that that offers a lot of friction between myself and the media and how they perceive what it is that I’m saying and how it comes across and all those sorts of things. You know, there’s an even more subtle underlying reason that, that I believe is because we all know how big of a business media is—another microcosm of capitalism. And human welfare isn’t on the same side of the street as media, at least the way media is today. I’m talking in general terms, not everybody in the media.

He’s making some really smart observations, but not espousing anything explicitly. His criticism of media as a microcosm of capitalism is much more fair than saying the same thing about the NBA, but is there really that much friction between him and the media? Virtually everyone I’ve observed is rooting for him — myself included — but is just a bit confused about what exactly he wants. We’re Americans, and we want talented, well-intentioned guys to work hard and succeed. White has gotten a bit of flack for being “woefully out of shape” or being difficult, but for the most part, people are supporting him. They understand he’s in a difficult situation. I’m unsure as to how the media is compromising his welfare. While far from perfect, the media has actually given him a voice.

Royce White is making a legitimate criticism of America and capitalism, and misapplying it to himself. I like that he speaks about politics as a 21-year old athlete. I love it. I just wish he would define his causes and argue them clearly, so this smart, “polarizing” dude with a massive platform could make a difference.

DZ: I was stunned when I read one interview you said that you would be willing to put your life on the line to make sure that there was universal mental health coverage in this country and, in one of the media analyses, one of the most prominent sports writers in the country [Bill Simmons] said, “The thing I get out of this interview is that I don’t think Royce White really likes to play basketball.” What do you say to that?

RW: I mean, we become so consumed with what we do. We become so in our lane, and we wake up every day and we discuss these issues—military issues and economic issues and health issues—and we tell ourselves, “That’s the way it is.” It gives us comfort and the next day we participate in that same system that we criticize. And, it doesn’t escape anybody; it doesn’t escape a Bill Simmons. He’s a sportswriter and a sports journalist, that’s all he’s thinking. When I say human welfare it’s almost like it goes in one ear and out the other because he’s not willing to take a stand for human welfare. He’s not willing to put his sports affiliation or job on the line for human welfare or what he really believes in. Because if we sat down, I’m sure he would believe in some of the same things that I do—almost, if not all of them. And, you know, there are just some people who are willing to actually stand for what they believe in against all odds, and some people who just won’t. And that’s fine too; it’s not a bad thing. It’s just alarming, like you said.

This is becoming a broken record. Royce White stands for human welfare, and I love that about him. But sports media and fans and ownership want him to be a good player, and for that, he has to have the undying commitment to basketball that the Kobe Bryants and Michael Jordans of the world have, or at least something remotely close to it. When Bill Simmons wonders if Royce White likes playing basketball, he’s raising a valid point. Bill Simmons wouldn’t be jeopardizing his job by supporting White or standing for human welfare. And he’s not standing in the way of White. He’s just trying to figure out if Royce White is ever going to be a good basketball player, because that’s part of his job.

Royce White doesn’t have to play basketball if he doesn’t want to play basketball. If he’s committed, he’s talented enough that he’ll get a fair opportunity. If he loves basketball, he’ll work really, really hard. But even Kobe Bryant, whose life is consumed by basketball, spends countless hours away from the court. Royce White can work ridiculously hard at basketball and still be political. He can still make a difference.

White mentions Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe as two athletes he would love to meet. Muhammad Ali was a legendary boxer. Arthur Ashe was a legendary tennis player. Both athletes worked incredibly hard, were incredibly good, and still managed to advance their causes. Royce White obviously wants to change the world. It’s not obvious if he wants to do that while being a great basketball player. If he doesn’t think working hard to play basketball maximizes his welfare, then that’s his prerogative. But then he can’t complain if he doesn’t succeed.

I hope Royce White decides what he wants, works hard at those things, and succeeds at whatever those things are.

[The Nation]

Images via Getty’s Nick Laham, ABC News, and The Nation