Royce White doesn't have a team anymore. He was cut by the Philadelphia 76ers this past Thursday, which is particularly disconcerting because the talent-starved Sixers would seem to be one of the few franchises in the league willing to give someone as volatile and promising as White time to grow. It remains to be seen whether this is the end of White's NBA career, but similar to when the Suns terminated Michael Beasley a couple months ago, one imagines he is, if not out of chances, somewhere very close.
We haven't heard much from either White or the Sixers about why he was released. USA TODAY Sports' Jason Wolf was reporting last week that it appeared White was close to securing a spot on the team, and indications were that White was putting his head down and fitting into the squad well during the preseason. There was no statement made by the team that acknowledged White's departure in a specific way; he was simply left out of the 15-man roster like a handful of other guys the Sixers called in to training camp. White offered only a short, positive tweet wishing his ex-teammates the best of the luck heading into the new season. This isn't the acrimonious split White had with the Houston Rockets. He seems to be thanking the Sixers for giving him a shot and keeping it moving. To where, exactly, is the most pressing question.
Even the NBA's most notable busts haven't flamed out in a single calendar year. The Robert Swifts and Joe Alexanders of the world at least collected paychecks for a few seasons before exiting the league. White is a rare case in that he was considered a top-five prospect on talent alone, but his options were limited from the beginning. In Jonathan Hock's short documentary on White's draft day experience, White is sitting in Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg's office, fielding a call from his agent as the lottery is winding down. His agent lists the remaining teams in the first round, and it turns out no one is interested in taking White except for Houston, and even then, Kevin McHale is apparently the only one fighting for White in the Rockets' draft room.
If the NBA as a near-complete whole wasn't high on the idea of employing White before his falling out with Daryl Morey and the Rockets, it seems unlikely any GM would be more enticed at this juncture. The chief reason for this is White's anxiety disorder and his assertive stance that any team that employs him must work with him and an independent medical professional in order to create a safe work environment. This means arranging special transportation on road trips and adhering strictly to a protocol -- one that hasn't been fully delineated by White in any interview I've read -- that would dictate what should be done in situations where White feels overwhelmed or in some way unable to do his job. This would be a bold position for a player of, say, Russell Westbrook's stature to take, let alone someone who hasn't played a professional game.
It's also one that appears to be ushering White out of the league, to either the NBADL or Europe, if he even wants to do that. It's becoming increasingly apparent that White might not be cut out for professional basketball. The reality is team sports, especially at the pro level, are unavoidably dehumanizing in some capacity. Players, depending upon the organization, are more or less treated as assets and instruments. This doesn't necessarily need to be a bad thing. The positive way of putting it is that individuals sacrifice a portion of themselves to become part of something greater and more capable. It's also on some level about power and control, with the athletes usually kowtowing to management. It's apparent that Royce White thinks about these things. It seems to make him uncomfortable, and it probably makes a lot of athletes -- ones dealing with mental illness or otherwise -- uncomfortable, even if they tacitly accept it.
White's conundrum is that his anxiety disorder is not a personality quirk or a bad habit. It's something that can only be managed, not reformed. It is a bothersome but persistent part of who he is, and something he either can't or won't ignore for the sake of being able to play in the NBA. This is a unique choice, because it's hard to imagine that White is wrong when he says other players in the league suffer from similar afflictions. I won't speculate on how many, but 26.2 percent of Americans 18 and up have a diagnosable mental illness. The NBA employs 360 to 450 players each year. A not-insignificant portion of the league has to be struggling with a mental health issue of one sort or another. Very few have spoken on the issue, and none of them have been nearly as adamant about its implications as White.
White sees himself as an advocate for players who deal with these problems. He wants to fundamentally change the rigid employer-employee relationship in professional sports, to destigmatize mental illness and make it something that's both discussed openly and treated accordingly. Unfortunately, the sad truth of it is that he's not the guy who can make this happen. White is not such an indispensable talent that he can't be marginalized. The choice he needs to make is whether he wants to be an advocate or a professional basketball player. He can't do both as his NBA career is dangling over a cliff.
This isn't fair, by the way. It's more than a little frustrating to those of us who think athletes have become overcommodified -- and probably most of all to White himself -- that the first athlete to aggressively challenge the way mental health is treated and discussed in the sports sphere can't find a team. (Regardless of the circumstances of White's dismissal from the Sixers, on talent alone and potential alone, he should be on somebody's roster.) But by being strident before and upon entering the league that he will accept nothing less than total understanding and accommodation from his employers, White knocked himself off of every team but the Rockets' first-round draft board. Large institutions like the NBA and professional sports in general are changed incrementally and from within. Metta World Peace, for instance, has been admirably forthright about his own mental health struggles, but he has both had an impressive career and isn't advocating for a radical reimagining of what players and teams owe one another.
White is trapped in a paradox. He wants to affect change, and the best way to do that is by playing in the NBA. But his desire to affect change, among other things, is what has pushed him to the periphery of the league. Additionally, the subject he's broaching has been so long-underdiscussed that it's hard to say what the solution to the problems he has brought to the forefront are. What's clear and what's right about White's mission is that the mental health of athletes and the responsibility of teams to care for and care about their players' mental well-being is an issue that can no longer be ignored. But what Royce White wants to be is an impossible thing, which is a shame, because what he's trying to accomplish shouldn't be.