Why Royce White Might be the Most Important Athlete Since Muhammad Ali, and Why Chuck Klosterman Doesn’t Get It

Why Royce White Might be the Most Important Athlete Since Muhammad Ali, and Why Chuck Klosterman Doesn’t Get It

Nathan Kalman-Lamb

There is a chance — not a large one, mind you — that in 2012 the most important athlete to enter public consciousness in the past few decades was drafted into the NBA. I am not talking about Anthony Davis.

Unless you are a basketball junkie, you have, even now, probably never heard of the person in question. But, if we are all lucky, supportive, and motivated, perhaps there will come a day when everyone will recognize the name Royce White.

If you are already familiar with White, it may be that you met him only recently, thanks to a story written by Chuck Klosterman for Grantland. The article is not a bad way to get to know the man. This is not because Klosterman provided a thoughtful, sympathetic, or insightful portrait. (Not at all, in fact.) It’s because the story Klosterman wrote, and the person he reveals himself to be as the interviewer, is a perfect representation of the broader ideological challenges that White faces, and challenges, as interviewee.

Chuck Klosterman represents common sense neo-liberal capitalist ideology. And maybe, just maybe, Royce White represents the antidote.

Before I delve into Klosterman’s mis-reading of White, I want to provide a little context for the development of my own awareness of White and his increasingly well-publicized struggles with mental illness and basketball culture.

I first learned of White’s story last year when he was starring as a point forward for the Iowa State University basketball team. Myron Medcalf wrote a lengthy profile for ESPN chronicling the difficulties White had experienced — specifically, with anxiety — while at the University of Minnesota (which he attended prior to transferring to Iowa State). As someone who has experienced a fair share of anxiety myself — and as the child of someone who suffered from acute mental illness — I felt tremendous empathy for what White was going through, and tremendous admiration for his willingness to speak publicly despite the persistence of stigma in relation to all forms of mental illness in general.

I watched with interest as White was drafted 16th by the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA Draft, after an interview process in which he spoke openly (video) with teams about his anxiety and his desire and need to work with an organization that would accommodate him. (If you watch the linked video you may be struck by how remarkably articulate White is, and also how candid he is about the challenges he faces. I was.) I hoped for the best for White (who happens to be a supremely gifted player) but didn’t think much more about it at the time.

Then, in November, I noticed that White was back in the news, this time for what was offensively described by various media outlets including USA Today as the Royce White Twitter Rant. I’ll reproduce this so-called “rant” in its entirety below.

On reading these Tweets (let’s stop calling them a “rant” shall we?), I was immediately struck by a few things:

First, White’s politics are far more sophisticated than I initially imagined. He understands that the NBA commodifies its athletes. 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).

Second, White is remarkably courageous. We all know the kind of abuse that finds its way onto social networking sites. By making his position so public, White opened himself up to assault from legions of fans who believe that players are part commodity, part avatar for the vicarious fulfilment of their desires and aspirations.

Third (and this point is inextricable from the second), White consciously chose to articulate his position via Twitter in order to circumvent mainstream media outlets which are invested in the political economy of the NBA and thus, unlikely to fairly or accurately represent his position. The very fact that this sequence of arguments was framed as a rant by USA Today and others testifies to the prescience of this decision.

This brings me to Chuck Klosterman, long-time music writer who has increasingly taken the liberty of reporting on and analyzing sports since the establishment of Grantland last year by Bill Simmons and ESPN. (Klosterman is listed on the website as a “contributing editor.”)

Klosterman, according to his testimony in a podcast taped with Bill Simmons immediately after the publication of the story on White, suggested that the impetus for the interview was a long-standing desire to explore the relationship between mental health and professional sport (he claimed to have attempted to pursue the same story with pitcher Dontrelle Willis). This may explain why he ends up finding himself so far out of his depth so quickly. For though Klosterman is interested in producing a de-contextualized puff piece on anxiety and performance, White forces him to confront political economy. And, unfortunately for Klosterman, that is something he appears, at least in the article itself, woefully ill-prepared to do.

Let’s start at the top. After introducing White, Klosterman helpfully explicates the terms of his “contractual, philosophical dispute with the Houston Rockets.” I quote at length:

“White wants the Rockets to implement what he calls a “mental health protocol,” a medical curriculum that essentially hinges on White having his own personal psychiatrist decide when he’s mentally fit to play. The Rockets feel they’ve already done enough (including agreeing to transport him to drivable away games so he won’t have to fly). They want him to accept their compromise and show up for work. And for most people, this is the whole argument. If you side with White, you believe that his anxiety disorder is no different from a physical injury, and that his mental health advocacy is warranted and overdue; if you side with the Rockets, you suspect that White is something of a con man whose adversarial attitude is an affront to his $3.4 million contract and the calculated risk Houston took by drafting him 16th overall. It’s a clash between labor and management, and his supporters and detractors tend to split down those preexisting lines.”

The problem here is that Klosterman immediately informs us that this contractual dispute is not what is important. He writes, “But that practical dichotomy tends to de-emphasize something that’s considerably more complex: Royce White’s radical (but not absurd) belief about mental illness as a whole.” Klosterman’s failure here is not in his acknowledgement that there is something more at stake than a labour dispute; his failure lies in his inability to understand that the contract issue and the larger discussion around mental illness are one and the same.

White’s argument and Klosterman’s failure to comprehend it are evident in the transcript of their interview, which Klosterman, to his credit, provides. However, before getting to the interview, it is worth pausing to dwell on a passing comment Klosterman choose to make, for it is an early sign of the ideological investments that frame both the story and the broader society it can be seen to represent. Klosterman writes of White, “He’s built like a double helix of panther sinew — whenever he adjusts his left arm, the biceps bulges so dramatically that it’s distracting.” What is evident here is a classic instance of racial coding. Klosterman’s first reaction upon meeting White is to reduce him to base physicality.

Frantz Fanon wrote about this phenomenon in Black Skin, White Masks:

“There is one expression that through time has become singularly eroticized: the black athlete… The Negro symbolizes the biological. First of  all, he enters puberty at the age of nine and is a father at the age of ten; he is hot-blooded, and his blood is strong; he is tough…I have always been struck by the speed with which ‘handsome young Negro’ turns into ‘young colt’ or ‘stallion,’” (1967, 158-167). 

Or, in this case, “panther.” Fanon is indexing the tendency within hegemonically white societies for the racialized other to be fetishized and fixed as fundamentally physical or biological. The non-white other becomes an object onto which the fears and desires of the white subject (Klosterman) are projected. In the process, the objectified other (White) is dehumanized.

By engaging in this form of objectification from the outset of the story, Klosterman (likely unconsciously) undermines White’s subjectivity. That is, he creates a contrast between his own implicit authorial omniscience and White’s comparative corporeality. The power of Klosterman’s description is that it draws on widespread cultural codes associating blackness with the body. Readers are pre-disposed to see White (as black athlete) in bestial terms; all they need is for Klosterman to push the necessary buttons.

Thus, by the time we as readers are confronted with the text of the interview itself, a power dynamic between interviewer and interviewee has already been established. Here is the first exchange reproduced at length (note that Klosterman, as questioner, is bolded in the source material):

Do you believe 26 percent of the league is dealing with a mental illness, or does mental illness prompt those dealing with it to self-select themselves out of the pool? Are you the rare exception who got drafted?

The amount of NBA players with mental health disorders is way over 26 percent. My suggestion would be to ask David Stern how many players in the league he thinks have a marijuana problem. Whatever number he gives you, that’s the number with mental illness. A chemical imbalance is a mental illness.

So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that –

That’s a mental illness. A gambling addiction is a mental illness. Addiction is a mental illness.

Well, then what’s the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?

The reality is that you can’t black-and-white it, no matter how much you want to. You have to be OK with it being gray. There is no end or beginning. It’s more individualistic. If someone tears a ligament, there is a grade for its severity. But there’s no grade with mental illness. It all has to do with the person and their environment and how they are affected by that environment.

OK, I get that. But you classify a gambling addiction as a mental illness. Gambling is incredibly common among hypercompetitive people. The NBA is filled with hypercompetitive people. So wouldn’t this mean that –

Here’s an even tougher thing that we’re just starting to uncover: How many people don’t have a mental illness? But that’s what we don’t want to talk about.

Why wouldn’t we want to talk about that?

Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they’re the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, “You stay over there and deal with your problems over there.”

OK, just so I get this right: You’re arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.

Exactly. That’s definitely correct.

But — if that’s true — wouldn’t that mean “mental illness” is just a normative condition? That it’s just how people are?

That doesn’t make it normal. This is based on science. 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.

So … this is about late capitalism?

Definitely. Definitely.

There is so much to unpack. Let us begin with Klosterman’s first questions about mental illness. Clearly, as discussed above, this is the story he is interested in telling. Yet, something strange emerges from the outset. As White begins to make a perfectly conventional case about addiction as mental illness (saying, “a chemical imbalance is mental illness”), Klosterman reacts as if this is a startling revelation: “So, wait … if somebody has a drinking problem, is that —.”

There are three possibilities here. Perhaps, Klosterman is woefully ignorant about the nature of mental illness. This is possible, although highly improbable and distinctly unprofessional given that he has set out to write a story on the subject. There is also the possibility that Klosterman is simply teeing up White to provide the obvious answer to the question (which he does). This is the most generous reading, but it is also the least likely. For, upon hearing White’s thoughtful answer, Klosterman attempts to problematize it: “Well, then what’s the lowest level of mental illness? What is the least problematic behavior that still suggests a mental illness?” The third possibility, and the most probable, is this: Klosterman is attempting to undermine and humiliate. He is trying to provoke White to fulfil his role as a bumbling athlete. There’s only one problem. White refuses to play his part.

Royce White, outspoken advocate for mental health as a social - not individual - phenomenon.  And perhaps one of the most important public figures in the NBA?

Royce White, outspoken advocate for mental health as a social – not individual – phenomenon. And perhaps one of the most important public figures in the NBA?

This becomes ever-more apparent as one reads White’s testimony. He is a young man who has fully worked through the logical implications of his argument. We see from the transcript that Klosterman wants this to be a story about mental illness, or perhaps, if that story does not play out the way he has in mind, a story about a recalcitrant athlete using mental illness as an excuse for his own indolence and greed (which is how Bill Simmons seems to interpret White in the podcast mentioned earlier). What Klosterman is unprepared for is a story about how the NBA stands in as a microcosm for the way in which mental illness and capitalism are linked.

Again, I will let White explain in his own words, as related by Klosterman:

“At the end of the day, we don’t associate mental health disorders with having severe health risks. And they do,” he explains. “In that Real Sports piece, they only touched on the addictive traits and the suicidal and homicidal behaviors [associated with mental illness]. But there are other elements that no one wants to talk about. Stress is one of the number-one killers of human beings. Stress hardens your arteries. And that’s scary for a lot of humans, so they don’t want to talk about it. It’s like — what is the pollution in the air really doing to us? We’d rather just tiptoe around that idea and argue that it’s the food that’s killing us. But the reality is that stress is a killer of humans, and if we don’t support mental health in the right way, the nature of the illness causes people to become overly stressed. And that’s serious.”

…”My request was to have an addendum to my contract,” he begins. “Now, would that set a precedent? That’s not really my thing. I asked for something to be put into my contract. Not something for all players to use.”

 But then he continues talking. And this is where it becomes difficult to see how White and the Rockets will ever find real common ground, even if he eventually ends up on their roster.

“But if you want to talk about it through that lens, every player should have their own doctor. The reality is that American businesses are built on the idea of cutting overhead. And how do we cut overhead?” White points to the door that leads from the patio to the main restaurant. “Why do restaurants put exit signs over every exit? I bet if Cheesecake Factory didn’t have to do that, they wouldn’t. Because it would cost less to do nothing. They have to be forced to do that. 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. It’s a conflict of interest to have the team doctor paid by the team. What we need is a doctor who can look at a situation and say, ‘Listen, I know the team wants you to do this, and I know their doctor is saying you should do this. But as a non-biased doctor with no interest in how you perform athletically, I recommend differently.’ Right now, you have players pushing themselves back in three weeks who have three-month injuries.”

I ask him if he understands why NBA owners might be reluctant to give players that level of input into when they’re ready to play basketball, particularly for a disease that’s invisible (and arguably subjective).

“I’m always going to run into problems with people who think business is more important than human welfare,” he replies.

White’s struggle is not just a contract dispute. It is not just a struggle with mental illness. It is both. White understands that capitalism inherently isolates, alienates, and dehumanizes. It is a system in which people are treated as commodities and in which generation of wealth is the highest social end. These are not simply abstract concepts, however. They have a palpable impact on people’s lives. Marx gives us one vocabulary to talk about this (the one I have been employing in this paragraph). White simply gives us another: mental illness.

The reason why this is important is because it allows White to produce a sophisticated, logically-developed argument that connects subjectivity (experience) to political economy. In other words, it prevents him from betraying precisely the naivety that Klosterman craves and expects. Klosterman wants White to fall into the trap of admitting that he has a unique problem requiring a special solution, and that this is an indefensible position if taken to its logical conclusion (for, if he gets special conditions in his contract, everyone else will want the same, and the league will collapse). Only, White has thought of that.

What if stress is just part of it?

What does that mean, “It’s just part of it”? That’s like saying people getting killed is just part of war.

But people getting killed is part of war. That’s the downside of war.

It doesn’t have to be, though. We choose that. When you say, “That’s just part of it,” it implies that this is natural. Volcanoes don’t kill human beings. Volcanoes kill human beings because human beings build houses right next to them.

Yes. But when I ask, “What if stress is just part of it?” I’m really asking, “What if it’s just part of the choice that society has made?” It may be problematic, but what if we’ve all agreed that this problematic thing is part of the experience of being involved in a rarefied profession?

That’s fine. But don’t act like this wasn’t a choice.

So what would you have done if, upon drafting you, the Rockets had said this: “Look — this is going to be hard for you. It might, in fact, be detrimental. But that is just part of competing at this sport at this level.”

You can’t do that, though. You can’t discriminate against somebody, because that’s ADA6 law. People say I’m getting special treatment, but it’s the NBA who wants special treatment. They want to say they’re this rarefied profession where laws don’t apply. But ADA law is federal. I’ve always said the NBA should have a mental health policy. I didn’t know they didn’t have one, until I got drafted. But the NCAA doesn’t have one, either … I had to sit my first year at Iowa State, because there was no mental health protocol. I transferred on the basis of mental health issues. Both my doctor and my psychiatrist wrote letters to the NCAA that said my staying at Minnesota would not be healthy, because I’d just been through a three-month case where I was targeted by police for a crime I was not guilty of, and that I needed a fresh start. Because I have a mental illness. But the NCAA denied my waiver.

What was the NCAA’s argument?

They didn’t really have one. They said it was my choice to transfer.

In a new paragraph immediately following the above exchange, here is how Klosterman responds: “There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can’t stop talking about it. He’s arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be.” There is tremendous irony here, for in this passage Klosterman displays the height of self-aggrandizement and insulting condescension. The reality is that it is he, not his interview subject, who is “not as wise as he believes himself to be.”

The reason for this is quite simple. Klosterman is attempting to critique White from precisely the ideological position that White is in the process of deconstructing. Because he does not recognize his own ideological investments, Klosterman believes that he is outside of ideology itself and thus suitably-positioned to analyze it. In fact, this ignorance leaves him completely unequipped to understand the extent to which he embodies the very object of White’s critique.

White is suggesting that those born into capitalist societies are socialized to see such a social structure as natural and normal. From this standpoint, it becomes very difficult to imagine another way of organizing society. Thus, on his podcast, Klosterman dismisses White’s argument as ultimately absurd because it would culminate in chaos for the NBA: each player with his own physician determining whether or not he can play. Such a conclusion makes sense for someone who cannot imagine his way out of capitalism; who views its institutions as timeless and inevitable.

Fortunately, White is not similarly myopic. What Klosterman cannot understand is that the entire purpose of White’s pesky, uninteresting contract dispute, his ‘irrational’ outbursts on twitter, and his “radical” views on mental illness is to challenge the very structure of capitalism itself, and following from that, all of the forms in which capitalism manifests, from the mass media to the National Basketball Association. The fact that genuine concern over mental illness (and other forms of bodily injury) might require a complete reorganization of the NBA to the extent that power would have to shift from ownership to labour is not a reason to throw these arguments away. They are the very reasons why such a radical change needs to occur and should be fought for. White gets this; Klosterman does not.

Clearly, much can be understood about the promise of White and the limitations of his society by reading his ideas in literal conversation with one of capitalism’s organic intellectuals, Mr. Chuck Klosterman. However, I want to conclude by imagining White in the shadow of a person with a very different legacy: Muhammad Ali.

It is difficult now to imagine a moment when athletes stood for something more than their own brand. The last few decades can be summed up largely in Michael Jordan’s infamous claim that “Rebublicans buy sneakers too.” This has become a mantra to live by for America’s most celebrated athletes, from Jordan to Tiger Woods to LeBron James. There was, however, a time when American athletes chose to use their remarkable public platform to challenge the inequities of racism and capitalism. Perhaps no one embodied that confluence of celebrity and political radicalism more fully than Ali.

At the end of his superb exploration of Ali and his era, Redemption Song, Mike Marqusee writes:

“If one day we’re lucky enough to live through a sporting revolution in which the domination of finance is overthrown and sport is at last permitted to come into its own, not as an instrument for monetary gain, or national aggrandizement, but as an exercise with no end but itself, I have no doubt the revolutionaries will draw inspiration from Muhammad Ali. His example of personal moral witness, of border-crossing solidarity, belongs not to sixties nostalgia, but to the common future of humanity,” (2005, 298).

Royce White may not see himself as the heir to Muhammad Ali. He doesn’t have to. He has already demonstrated the same spirit of political conviction and courage that animated his predecessor. Now, all he needs is the stage. The challenge for White will be to find a way to reconcile his distaste for the structures of capitalism and the NBA and the political imperative to carve out a prominent place in those spaces. If he cannot, Klosterman may be the last obnoxious pop-journalist to be befuddled by him, not just the first.

We live in a unique era: one in which we can speak directly to those we might otherwise admire from afar. White has already demonstrated the power of social networking to disseminate an unfiltered message. It’s time we showed  him that he does not walk alone. Tweet your support to Royce at @Highway_30.

Nathan Kalman-Lamb is a PhD. Candidate at York University in Toronto and is the co-author (with Gamal Abdel-Shehid) of Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports.

Refereces

Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. New York: Grove Press.

Marqusee, M. (2005). Redemption song: Muhammad Ali and the spirit of the              sixties. London: Verso.

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27 Responses to Why Royce White Might be the Most Important Athlete Since Muhammad Ali, and Why Chuck Klosterman Doesn’t Get It

  1. Aaron says:

    I have no idea who you are, but it seems you’ve made the exact same mistakes in characterizing Klosterman as you claim he has made about White. I don’t know what experience you have with Klosterman’s work, but he’s been far more than a music critic for several years now. His insight into sports and pop culture at large is deep and impressive. More importantly, he doesn’t tackle issues lightly. Which is probably why he was offered The Ethicist column for the NY Times magazine. Are White and his issues perhaps too detailed for a “puff piece” (as you put it) on a site like Grantland? Possibly. But it appears you have simply read the one article and then leapt to many conclusions. I came away from the piece thinking Klosterman was attempting to be fair and even. Simmons is far more skeptical. Which is an inherent problem with the discussion at hand: Mental illness is a confusing, dark, and mostly unknown concept. Klosterman raised valid questions. For some of them White had good answers. For others… IMO, not so much. You didn’t like Klosterman’s take, so you labeled him (quite inaccurately, methinks). Further, you attempt to throw in accusations of latent racism at him that seem completely off base. White is an athlete, after all. And while he may wish to be seen as a crusader for a noble cause (and is some ways he is), he’s also supposedly a professional basketball player that is seeking to revolutionize the sport for only himself. By his own admission he’s not advocating on behalf of anyone but himself. That’s a striking disconnect. He consciously chose to pursue a career in a high-stress, high-expectation environment and then seems surprised that is precisely what it is. As Klosterman sort of points out, if everyone has a mental illness then no one has a mental illness. There has to be a cutoff, and that is what he was driving at. I admit that I like Klosterman’s writing, even when I vehemently disagree with him. But your article seemed misguided in its defense of White while needlessly (and strangely) disparaging Klosterman. If you’re seeking the level of open dialog you claim, this isn’t the way to introduce yourself.

    • squintz2103 says:

      This is also why I think you need to read this again, in reply to your if everyone does than no one does comment.
      “But — if that’s true — wouldn’t that mean “mental illness” is just a normative condition? That it’s just how people are?

      That doesn’t make it normal. This is based on science. 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.”

  2. Pingback: Royce White debut - Page 2

  3. dave soutee says:

    Injecting race into this? Really??

  4. squintz2103 says:

    I think you need to read it the piece again Aaron. The author fairly breaks down Klosterman’s underlying assumptions and unfair characterizations of White, he doesn’t leap to any conclusions at all. It seems it is you and Klosterman that were leaping to conclusions “White is an athlete after all. And while he may wish to be seen as a crusader for a noble cause he’s also supposedly a pro bball player that is seeking to revolutionize the sport for only himself.” Aren’t you falling prey to the same unfair characterizations that Klosterman uses. That athletes should be apolitical, that if you aren’t trying to play the role of some vanguard that you simple a spoiled, self-centred whiner, that he made his choice of his career and he should be fine with the conditions dictated to him because of that choice?
    Isn’t it also contradictory to call him a crusader but also say in the same breath that he is only trying to better conditions for himself? Which one is it?
    Anyways I think your desire to protect Klosterman’s reputation as some moral authority and great commentator of our generation has clouded your interpretation of the argument laid out here.

    • Aaron says:

      I still disagree. I don’t think Klosterman leveled those accusations; he was merely exploring the possibilities. White is a bit of an enigma. Little was known of him prior to getting drafted, and now he is more known for his attempt to raise awareness about mental illness than he is for playing the game. But he sidesteps the question that Klosterman raises; that is, whether there are some things that are “just part of it”. White’s response about war shows some level of naivete on his part. I didn’t feel Klosterman pressed him either, which would have been a clearer indication of nefarious motives. And you raise the same questions I did: Is he a crusader or is he being selfish? We don’t know enough so far to know definitively. Why is it wrong to ask such questions? You and the author of this piece seem to be suggesting that asking any questions that raise skepticism are unfair by default. I certainly don’t view Klosterman as some moral authority, which I thought I made clear by saying I liked his work even when I found it disagreeable. Klosterman didn’t make too many declarative statements or attempt to pigeonhole White, as far as I could tell. Why do you feel it necessary to insert something that isn’t there?

  5. squintz2103 says:

    The criticism the author and I both have is that Klosterman has underlying assumptions that inform his questions. You say he makes no declarative statements, but the entire interview is riddled with declarative statements such as the idea that mental anguish and stress is an inherent part of the sport, and as an extentension that we all make informed choices to participate in war or work etc despite the consequences, or even what Klosterman wants to define as mental health issues, which he then reverts to a sliding scale of severity of mental health issues when he is shown the error of his ways.

    The idea that because White is fighting for something that directly affects him that he must be selfish is ridiculous, especially given the exploitative context of the NBA and professional sports in general. Telling us that these things are “just part of it” and inevitable is a ridiculous straw man meant to sidetrack the important points that White is trying to make and that the author highlights but you fail to recognize. There are other ways to organize and structure these industries and just because they conflict with the entrenched capitalist model does not mean they are impossible, unfathomable or naive.

    “White’s struggle is not just a contract dispute. It is not just a struggle with mental illness. It is both. White understands that capitalism inherently isolates, alienates, and dehumanizes. It is a system in which people are treated as commodities and in which generation of wealth is the highest social end. These are not simply abstract concepts, however. They have a palpable impact on people’s lives. Marx gives us one vocabulary to talk about this (the one I have been employing in this paragraph). White simply gives us another: mental illness.
    The reason why this is important is because it allows White to produce a sophisticated, logically-developed argument that connects subjectivity (experience) to political economy. In other words, it prevents him from betraying precisely the naivety that Klosterman craves and expects. Klosterman wants White to fall into the trap of admitting that he has a unique problem requiring a special solution, and that this is an indefensible position if taken to its logical conclusion (for, if he gets special conditions in his contract, everyone else will want the same, and the league will collapse).”

    What you and Klosterman are doing is over simplifying an incredibly complex argument and situation to obscure the actual issues and limit solutions. It is not inherent that workers or athletes be forced to destroy themselves physically or mentally to feed the profits of the owners. Klosterman and you both assume that there is no other possibility and it is simply just part of it and if anyone disagrees or stands against it that they are simply selfish, naive or wrong. I didn’t raise the question of crusader vs selfish, I was quoting you to show you how contradictory your position is and how little you were actually saying.

    No one is saying it is wrong to ask questions, but you characterized your questions as attacks on the writer for unfairly attacking Klosterman, when all he is doing is simply the same thing you claim you are doing. Klosterman quite obviously tries to pigeonhole White as the typical, spoiled, non-white (other) athlete trying to demand too much from the status quo. Whether it is the beginning where he creepily obsesses over his physique, or constantly question his motivations to the detriment of critiquing what White is actually saying, or even this condescending gem of obfuscation “There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can’t stop talking about it. He’s arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be. But sometimes he offers genuine insight into the mediated discomfort of modernity, such as when we discuss Twitter.”

    Klosterman obviously has a set image of what White is and how that identity limits his argument. Klosterman also has his own narrow perspective that further limits his analysis and I think the author did a good job picking them out and critiquing them. At the end of the day, I really think you view the power dynamics of this relationship in a completely upside down manner. White has virtually no power in this situation, while you view Klosterman as some impartial critic simply trying to understand when it is clear from the piece as a whole that he is anything but impartial.

  6. Nathan Kalman-Lamb says:

    Aaron,
    I think that you have in some ways indexed the crux of the difference between White’s perspective and Klosterman’s when you reference the issue of whether stress is just part of basketball. For White, no form of human social relation is inherent or natural. To use his language, it is a “choice.” Klosterman, on the other hand, seems to view institutions like the NBA as timeless features of our society. The world as we see it is the world as it must be. This is a fundamentally naive viewpoint and it is this viewpoint that I have challenged (and that White is challenging). Whether or not stress is part of NBA life today, it does not have to be. It is not naive to suggest this or to advocate for reform or even revolution. This is the logical extension of White’s position and he embraces it. Klosterman thinks this is too absurd an idea to entertain, so he rejects it. Such dogmatic adherence to the status quo is as self-serving as it is politically and intellectually limited.

    best,

    Nathan

  7. Nathan Kalman-Lamb says:

    I should add that squintz2103 mounted a very strong defence of the position even as I was writing. I did not mean to suggest that it was insufficient!

  8. Pingback: A momentary pause from confusing literature. « I`ve Nothing For You

  9. mrsonsai says:

    fantastic. i knew what an average nba fan would know about white and the rockets, but i had no idea white was this voiced on mental health. all the more, that he sought to deconstruct capitalism on that platform. i am very impressed and in awe.

  10. T-MO says:

    Any man who leads his life with his heart, and honesty, will ALWAYS be a champion – ON AND OFF THE COURT! 0:-).

  11. Ezdan BLDG1 says:

    @squintz2103 Regarding White supposed “selfishness” he actually says “My request was to have an addendum to my contract,” he begins. “Now, would that set a precedent? That’s not really my thing. I asked for something to be put into my contract. Not something for all players to use.”
    So yeah, he admitted he is in it for himself on this one issue.

    Overall, I think this article is loaded with more loaded statements than Klosterman’s and isn’t nearly as insightful. It sounds like Kalman-Lamb is the one racially motivated in the two pieces. Considering his field of study, he should’ve read enough athlete profiles to know that is ridiculously common to use animals as a touchstone to reality when describing an athlete. This is regardless of race. I can provide a plethora of examples if need be.

    I don’t understand why the author feels Klosterman is trying to undermine and humiliate White. What does it gain him? Being skeptical is part of being a journalist. Is it wrong to ask an interview subject to clarify a statement or position? How would Kalman-Lamb prefer Klosterman interview White? It seems that if anything Kalman-Lamb is injecting more into this interview for his own purposes than is really there in the first place.

    Lastly, if you bother reading any of Klosterman’s sports writing, you will see that he doesn’t consider any sport, league or economic structure to be a monolithic sacred cow. He expects them all to change in order to stay viable. The position you are attacking isn’t one that he is attempting to hold in this piece or any other that, to my knowledge, he has written. At no point in the piece does Klosterman ridicule or deride what White is attempting to do. At no point does he say the status quo is preferable. Is he skeptical? Yes, because that’s what journalists should be – not cheerleaders or supporters. He did exactly what he was supposed to do: interview Royce White and analyze that conversation.

    Also, what the hell is an organic intellectual?

    • There’s a lot to respond to, here, but it’s usually useless to pick more than one thing. So, I’ll pick this one: “Considering his field of study, he should’ve read enough athlete profiles to know that is ridiculously common to use animals as a touchstone to reality when describing an athlete. This is regardless of race. I can provide a plethora of examples if need be.”

      You certainly can, but anecdotes don’t really prove anything. What Nathan is describing is a historical tradition that has been amazingly persistent and continues to have real effects: white athletes are often perceived to be intellectual and described in terms of grittiness, effort, or will-power; black athletes are discussed in terms of their raw talent, the seeming ease with which they play also serving as a subtle rebuke because they probably don’t have the ability to handle or learn from failure. (These aren’t mutually exclusive categories, mind you, but there are clear trends, and they’ve been proven repeatedly.)

      For instance: the internet is littered with articles pointing out that people wrongly assume Robinson Cano to be fast, or that Felix Hernandez’s motivation will be adversely affected by a contract extension. Newscasters have publicly announced their preference for Dustin Pedroia over Cano on the basis that he ‘wants to win more’ and Justin Verlander over Felix because ‘he would be better able to handle a big contract’. It’s been commonly written that Cano shouldn’t be re-signed because he isn’t a leader, Verlander should be extended because he is. There’s a point at which the pile of evidence simply becomes embarrassing.

  12. squintz2103 says:

    White also said that he was fighting to have mental illness recognized as a crisis and not simply a normative part of society, so if you ignore that and emphasize only one point, you might be right, but in this case you’re just cherry-picking his statements to support your point. He is in it for himself inasmuch as it directly affects his ability to have a career and can you blame anyone for that? All he is saying is that he has limited power to act as a catalyst for change and given the context of zero support from NBAPA with the incredible power of the NBA to silence him, what would you really like him to do besides what he is already doing?

    Everything else you said is wrong. Just how is Klosterman not trying to undermine White and I go back to this quote again “There are times when White seems like a brilliant ninth-grader who just wrote a research paper on mental illness and can’t stop talking about it. He’s arrogant, and perhaps not as wise as he believes himself to be. But sometimes he offers genuine insight into the mediated discomfort of modernity, such as when we discuss Twitter.” What do you call that except a condescending dismissal of his entire argument without actually addressing any of the main points White makes.

    How can you argue that Klosterman isn’t saying that the current NBA structure isn’t an unchangeable sacred cow? That is exactly how he frames his line of questioning when he posits that stress is simply a part of it and if he didn’t want to be exposed to that he could have chosen another profession.

    Klosterman did exactly what he was supposed to do, act as opposition and seek to discredit and oversimplify an incredibly complex and important argument. No one is saying Klosterman should be a cheerleader or that’s what journalists should do, but in this case Klosterman is clearly taking a side and has made up his mind as to how he views White; as a spoiled, egotistical, immature athlete, hardly the objective fair-dealer you seem to think he is.

    Anyways maybe you should figure out what an organic intellectual is before we go any deeper into this. I’ll give you some hints first google the term by itself and then try googling Antonio Gramsci.

  13. Aaron says:

    The crux of the issue appears to fall around whether you got the impression that Klosterman’s questions were appropriate from a journalistic perspective. I’m very familiar with Klosterman’s work and therefore his tone, so I am aware of his love for and associated skepticism of how sports operate in this country. I think his questions to White were fair, pointed, and his summary still left a lot of room for the reader to draw their own conclusions (especially if they are willing to seek external info). But some here seem to take the stance that any and all questions from Klosterman showed a bias and presupposition, as well as being condescending simply because he had the audacity to characterize a young man as being somewhat naive.
    And we’ve somehow dragged a Marxist into a discussion on mental illness in sports and society on the whole.
    I hope White has some success in changing attitudes about how we view and address mental illness in this country. But he’ll have a much harder time of that if he can’t figure out how to be a pro basketball player at the same time. I wish him the best in his personal and professional endeavors.

  14. squintz2103 says:

    I think I’ve made a clear argument for how that isn’t the case with this particular Klosterman piece and you didn’t address any of the specific points I made or any of the direct quotations I put forward supporting my position. You simply assure us that you know Klosterman’s work and we can rest assured that he is skeptical of the dominant ideology of American sports, media and society, apparently we’ll just have to take your word for it because you offer nothing to back up your position.
    As well, apparently because I know who Gramsci is, that automatically makes me a Marxist (because Marxists have no opinion on sports, mental illness or society or they’re somehow ruled invalid by default).
    Klosterman characterizes White as naive to ignore the crux of his argument, as the author said and as I quoted to you, but you avoided responding to
    “…The reason why this is important is because it allows White to produce a sophisticated, logically-developed argument that connects subjectivity (experience) to political economy. In other words, it prevents him from betraying precisely the naivety that Klosterman craves and expects. Klosterman wants White to fall into the trap of admitting that he has a unique problem requiring a special solution, and that this is an indefensible position if taken to its logical conclusion (for, if he gets special conditions in his contract, everyone else will want the same, and the league will collapse).”
    AKA a straw man argument saying White is naive for expecting more or even a minimum level of support for something that is constantly being recognized as a widespread societal problem if not a full-blown crisis. All you did was repeat Klosterman’s false interpretation of White and try to pass it off as a forgone conclusion. If you wished him the best you would support him instead of arguing that what he wants is impossible and he just needs to change his attitude. I will emphasis this so you understand what I am saying, this is not an attitude, or a naive belief, it is something that he believes (and argues indepth and quite intelligently) is a structural problem that must be addressed if we want to believe ourselves to be a just and equitable society.

    • Aaron says:

      As opposed to the number of times you’ve simply said “no you’re wrong” and offered little further? You’ve made your assumptions and drawn conclusions from them. That you won’t admit that is why there’s no point in listing them out individually as another poster did (which you proceeded to ignore and deliver yet another screed). This sort of back-and-forth is tedious. There’s a reason I’d never heard of this site before. You traded on Klosterman’s name to get me here. I won’t make that mistake again.

  15. squintz2103 says:

    Did you even read any of my posts? I quoted Klosterman’s piece extensively in my previous posts. Try just reading the last one. I specifically refer to aspects of Klosterman’s article that support the points I’m making (namely that White is naive and that stress is a normative part of the NBA) and quote an important conclusion from this article and you just ignore them all. I write a lot for someone simply dismissing you as wrong, what are all those words for?

  16. dhfabian says:

    I’m not so sure that shining a light on mental health issues is wise at this time. Currently, our culture takes a very harsh, punitive approach to the suffering of fellow citizens, whether it’s poverty or health issues. When mental health issues leave a person unable to work, we are especially inclined to take a punitive approach.

    • GOODSKATE says:

      EXACTLY, dhfabian! It is exactly that inclination to punish one another that Royce White is fighting against, popular or not. Don’t let the spat between these authors muddy the waters further. Just take a deep breath and give a listen to what Royce White is bringing to the table. It is of enlightenment and awareness of mental health issues he speaks. It is of diagnoses and wellness he strives! It is of tolerance and accommodation he asks. Thank you for hitting the nail on the head!

    • db says:

      IMHO, the way our society treats mental illness, trauma, stress, each other, education, everything needs to go under the microscope. it’s BECAUSE we, culturally, drop the ball on so many things that we need to talk about them and create the tools to not only deal with our own problems but also confront the negative associations of others. We, (USAmericans), are so hard on anyone who seems different because we have a deep sense of difference as threatening. not to say this is wrong, the threat and frustration of difference is at the heart of the sexual violence epidemic on our planet and people need to be able to identify danger and communicate with others about it, but a preoccupation with it, entire industries built on the assumption that feeding those dark feelings can be the harvested low-hanging fruit of capitalism definitely drives many epic failures in communication around us. our national debate on gun violence, the economy, jobs, the environment and pollution, do these things contribute to mental illness or are they a symptom of it? obviously both in different spates, but overall i guess i’m advocating opening these wounds so we can talk about them and give them a new vocabulary, cause if we remain bound by the habits of the past, we’re dooming ourselves to greater illusions than we may be able to manage.
      related: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/02/15/opium-of-the-21st-century/

  17. Nathan Kalman-Lamb says:

    If you’re interested in further discussion of this issue, I spoke on the podcast Progressive Voices about capitalism, mental illness, and Royce White’s struggle: http://rabble.ca/podcasts/shows/progressive-voices/2013/02/capitalism-mental-health-and-nba-story-royce-white

  18. Barb Caffrey says:

    This is an excellent sociological approach to what’s going with Royce White and his struggles with getting his mental illness properly treated and recognized by his employer, the Houston Rockets (and the NBA as a whole). Really fine writing. I enjoyed this perspective and believed it’s far more thought-provoking than Klosterman’s original article, though at least Klosterman was willing to entertain some of White’s points. (For a mainstream journalist these days, that’s a fairly liberal perspective, sad to say.)

    It’s obvious that no matter what happens next to Royce White, he is going to be — already is — a trailblazer. And his voice is important because he is taking a stand and sticking to it, not just because he is able to get the word out on Twitter or Facebook or other social media sites. (The word getting out from athletes like Chad Johnson hasn’t exactly provided much impressive social policy, for example. Even though I really enjoy Chad Johnson and his Twitter utterances, because at least he has the benefit of being unfiltered.)

    Thank you for discussing this in a broader sociological perspective.

  19. hockfilms says:

    Wondering if you saw the short film about Royce White on the day he was drafted by the Rockets. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRUS6QBiViQ

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