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