This essay was adapted from a post on Shoals' Tumblr.
I’ve always wanted to understand athletes as humans. I don't mean to say, by this, that I necessarily want to get deep or personal over the course of several hours with any or all of them. What I mean to say is that, even if only superficially, or symbolically, the athletes I've found most compelling have been at their most compelling to me when they reflected something basic about being human.
Playing sports isn’t life, even for those who make it their living. Rather, sports are bits and pieces of life reassembled in a heightened, refined form. No sport or league is exempt from the human condition, any more than anything else could be. And yes, it’s possible to have a fiction, or a smokescreen, that still speaks to what athletes really mean to us—why they have resonance, why we stop and pay attention no matter what the score. We watch press conferences, for Christ’s sake. We look for something there, and sometimes we find something there.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. But there is a (popular) type of sports-following that dabbles in hagiography, delusion, and self-serving invention, while at the same time pouncing on shards of candor as if they were the key to an entire forbidden city. Above all else, though, we don't have time for heroes. There's time for heroics, sure, and the strain of exceptional circumstances. A priori heroism is both a burden and object of fascination, but never cause for a parade. Acts and actions, gestures on and off the court. These are the bits and pieces I’ve always relied upon in understanding sports. Aura is either terrifyingly earned or gleefully shallow.
All of which is a long way of saying that Great Athlete Narratives have never meant shit to me. Redemption is personal, never political; sports should be no exception. Look no further than Kevin Garnett, who saved his legacy only to morph into a psychotic jerk for all the world to see, and so redefine that legacy again. The struggle in recovery from injury and the split-second Willis Reed references that chase it are less about easy templates and more about the lasting power these have for us down the line. Twitter’s instant judgment, while endlessly amusing, could not be further from fixing memories in place. You did it! Now what happens? That’s how stories should start, not end. And so: Royce White.
Royce White’s tumultuous pro career, young as it is, has already made me realize one major rupture in all I’ve laid out above. While sports are always somewhat alien to me and thus/so endlessly easy to twist to my own needs, there are certain subjects—mental illness among them—that don't afford me that luxury. You can guess my diagnosis if you want, but suffice it to say that I take a ton of meds and have problems conducting myself in an orderly fashion, especially in any remotely professional setting. I sulk a lot and also am given to extremely irrational outbursts. Case closed.
And so further suffice it to say that when it comes to mental illness and possibly drugs, I turn into the worst kind of Sports Shouting (or drab Romantic) fan. White has only ever been so interesting to me, if I'm being honest. I’ve been eager to see him to succeed, one damaged brain to another, but compared to Delonte West or Ricky Williams, White, his situation, and his diagnosis are—at the risk of sounding like the worst person on Earth—a little too familiar, too relatable. If we want athletes to provide us with something to look up to or scoff at from above, then White's workplace drama and solid skill-set are a far cry from Williams walking away from football because he felt like it. Also different: West, a versatile and charismatic guard, riding around on a Rascal with a submachine gun like he saw on Storage Wars; the chronic self-harming outbursts of Sheed or DeMarcus Cousins.
White is no anthem or metaphor. Nor does readily lend himself to mythology, however dark. He’s a dude trying to do his job with a condition that makes it hard for him. Courageously, he has decided to push back instead of knuckling under and causing himself untold amounts of psychic hassle. This is activism for the mentally ill in sports, a template for persons more ordinary, a throwback to liberation movements of the days when such things really worked, and perhaps a preview of what the inevitable First Gay Athlete will look like.
What Royce White isn’t, though, is a caricature, an exception, or the kind of singularly self-destructive being whose rise and fall we will talk about for years. He succeeds or fails on remarkably practical terms. It’s unlikely White will ever achieve on-court immortality; that was unlikely even without his condition. For now, his struggle is being pitched very much like a stand against the system, not someone already driven to extremes by its proscriptions.
But still, I can’t help but fixate on those other athletes, the ones who make my life seem bigger and more unpredictable as opposed to White, whose life serves as some reflection of my own. That’s the problem with nearly all sports-watching, and the escapist/happy tribalism excuse only ever answers so much. At bottom, we should watch because we want to find ourselves, or the world as we know it. If sports belongs only to knights and robots, we are that much closer to a video game universe and entertainment (or community ritual) becomes that much more dehumanizing—for audience and participant alike. This is the challenge that White presents: watching sports to find ourselves and see our world is one thing; actually finding ourselves and everything else is something else entirely.
There's a gulf between what it feels like to watch sports, unencumbered, and all the baggage we bring to it. It should be ourselves. Instead, it is, largely, the pre-game and the nonsense cant of jock wisdom. In those terms, White is strictly a nuisance, not a rich-as-life character. Which isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with characters. Only that, when there’s something very real on the line, we would do well to remember that sports belong to the world, not the other way around. And I would do well to remind myself of that. That’s what I meant to say.