Royce White, Mental Health, and the Americans with Disabilities ActFebruary 2, 2013 • Contributed by Zawn Villines
Royce White has drawn increasing attention to legal issues surrounding mental illness since he joined the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets as a first-round draft pick in 2012. White, who starred collegiately at Iowa State, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety and obsessive compulsion in 2008, and has clashed with the Rockets regarding whether his issues should warrant accommodations specific to his needs. He believes that mental health issues should be treated as seriously as physical injuries in determining fitness to play.
White traces his anxiety to a traumatic childhood experience during which he witnessed a close friend collapse on a basketball court due to cardiac issues. Traveling by air and other common fear– and anxiety-inducing situations are particularly difficult for White, who also experiences panic attacks.
The NBA Debate
When White was drafted by the Rockets, he requested accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to enable him to perform despite his mental health issues. Among those accommodations were a safe playing environment and the ability to travel to away games by bus. White publicly criticized the NBA for a “lack of protocol” for handling mental health issues, and he was suspended on January 6 for failing to meet his duties under his $3.4 million contract.
On January 26, White and the Rockets reached an agreement aimed at addressing his issues with the league. The agreement is intended to ultimately allow him to play for the Rockets and reinstates him to the league. White is scheduled to begin practicing with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers—a team in the NBA’s Development League—on February 11.
Mental Health and the Law
White’s conflict with the NBA highlights the ongoing debate surrounding mental health and disability. Signed into federal law in 1990, the ADA is designed to protect the rights of disabled persons and specifically defines mental illness as a disability. Under the law, employers cannot consider a person’s mental health or other disability when making hiring decisions, and must make “reasonable accommodations” to make it possible for people with defined disabilities to do their jobs. White argued that traveling by bus, for example, was a reasonable accommodation. He also wanted an independent psychiatrist, as opposed to a doctor employed by the team, to determine his availability to play from day to day—a request reportedly not granted as part of his reinstatement.
Many people with mental health conditions are not aware of their rights, and not all employers are hip to the law. But large employers, such as the NBA, generally are well aware of the ADA. In cases such as White’s, the debate typically centers on what constitutes a “disabled” person and how a “reasonable” accommodation is defined.
The ADA defines a disability as any condition that interferes with a major life activity. In some cases, employers fight ADA claims on grounds that the person is not fully disabled or that the disability does not interfere with an employee’s ability to do his or her job.
Reasonable accommodations are defined as accommodations or changes in the work itself or work environment that enable disabled persons to enjoy the same benefits and privileges of work as nondisabled persons. Accommodations that fundamentally alter the character of the work are not considered reasonable. A few accommodations that courts have deemed to be reasonable include:
- Allowing leave to obtain medical treatment or due to a medical condition
- Altering the employee’s schedule
- Providing ramps, parking spaces, and furniture that make an office environment accessible
- Allowing an employee to use a different computer
- Permitting service dogs
- Restructuring job functions
- Allowing employees to telecommute
There are also state laws designed to protect the rights of people with mental health conditions, and court cases such as the Olmstead decision have given people with mental health issues the right to live in the least restrictive setting possible. While legal arguments may continue, people with mental health conditions should be aware that a recent diagnosis or relapse does not have to interfere with employment, medical treatment, or housing.
- Americans with Disabilities Act and mental illness. (n.d.). Womenshealth.gov. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/your-rights/americans-disability-act.cfm
- Beck, H. (2013, January 23). Rockets’ White says he’s close to returning. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/24/sports/basketball/royce-white-and-rockets-reach-deal-on-mental-health-care.html
- Blinebury, F. (2013, January 5). White says chances high he won’t play. NBA Hangtime Blog. Retrieved from http://hangtime.blogs.nba.com/2013/01/05/white-says-chances-high-he-wont-play/?ls=iref:nbahpts
- Enforcement guidance: Reasonable accommodation and undue hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. (n.d.). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/accommodation.html
- Houston Rockets and Royce White joint release. (2013, January 26). NBA.com. Retrieved from http://www.nba.com/rockets/news/houston-rockets-and-royce-white-joint-release
- Olmstead: Community integration for everyone. (n.d.). United States Department of Justice. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/olmstead/index.htm
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Brad EFebruary 3rd, 2013 at 5:58 AM
This is an interesting situation that I will love to know what the final outcome will be because the NBA isn’t usually a league where I would think that guys would be willing to talk about their shortcomings, only their strengths. Of course they should accommodate him. It does not effect how good of a ball player he is physically but anything that can help him be stronger mentally is only going to help the team and why they wouldn’t see it this way is kind of beyond me.
HUGHFebruary 3rd, 2013 at 11:30 PM
It’s great to see Mr.White show a spine during the case. Also there may be so many of such people being fired or denied right due to mental disability who are not in the picture because their employer was not as big as the NBA. The law needs to be enforced. But before that the beneficiaries themselves need to be made aware of it!
JustineFebruary 4th, 2013 at 3:46 AM
I totally agree that employers should have to have specific accommodations in mind when they take on the responsibility of hiring someone with a mental health issue.
But do I think that they should have to go above and beyond what they would normally do for anyone else just becasue this person is an athletic star? No. The things that they should have to do need to be what they would do for anyone else that is reasonable to expect them to do.
heathFebruary 4th, 2013 at 8:18 AM
don’t wanna sound like a heartless person or anything but making concessions is one thing but in this business of millions of dollars this person does seem like he’s gonna be having problems. a team wouldn’t wanna spend money on him and they have him unavailable for games because he doesn’t wanna get on the plane, you know!
F. GreningerFebruary 4th, 2013 at 8:23 AM
It seems like the player’s demands weren’t unreasonable. I do agree that he could use the team doctor as long as the doctor is qualified to treat the conditions. I think it’s great that this player is working to increase awareness and equality of treatment for mental illness in the NBA.
JohannaFebruary 4th, 2013 at 8:28 AM
So, why the demotion?
IngridFebruary 4th, 2013 at 8:38 AM
Johanna, that is an excellent question. And, I hope for the league’s sake that it is because he just didn’t play as well as expected. Because if he was demoted for “causing trouble,” the league just left themselves wide open for a law suit for discrimination against him for his mental health issues. That would be a not so stellar move on the league’s part.
Kayla T.February 4th, 2013 at 8:40 AM
It sounds to me like he’s just making excuses. Everybody has bad things happen and friends die. Yeah, it stinks but that doesn’t mean everybody else has to pay for your pity party. Grow up Royce White!!!!!
samuelFebruary 4th, 2013 at 3:44 PM
Americans with Disabilities Act?? How many of our politicians and leaders have actually read the constitution and the various Acts? Not too many that’s for sure! To expect them to go with the small guy especially when the opposition is something as big as the NBA? Chances are slim to say the least!
Don WFebruary 5th, 2013 at 3:52 AM
My thoughts on this would be, didn’t the Rockets know all about this before deciding to go after him in the draft? They had to have lawyers with whom they consulted and discovered exactly what they had to do that did not open up this can of discrimination against the player. I am fully on board with making exceptions due to disabilities if needed, but couldn’t this guy go get some counseling to help with say, this fear of flying? Does he always have to be given a bus instead? There are times when the law is good and there are times when the laws are stupid and just intended to drag things out and not always for the better.
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