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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