Is Royce White the Victim of Sexism?

I’m not a big fan of professional sports, but I’ve been enthusiastically following the story of NBA rookie Royce White. White, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets, has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and phobia of flying. Because he cannot board a plane, the Rockets pay for ground transportation for White.

White is extremely open about his anxiety, and his candor has drawn attention to anxiety disorders. White frequently shares brave and heartfelt insights via twitter, inspiring many of his supporters to tweet their own anxiety-related diagnoses.

Recently, a critical article by respected sports journalist Adrian Wojnarowski questioned White’s dedication to the NBA and accused White of using his anxiety as a bargaining tool to get more playing time. White denies the allegations. I don’t know White, Wojnarowski, or anyone associated with the Rockets. I don’t know what White’s motives are, and I don’t know anything about his negotiations. I have no guesses as to the accuracy of the article.

Here’s what matters to me: Royce White’s tweets have made him a hero to children with anxiety disorders. And many twitter users have responded to that heroism with horrifying hatred. To raise awareness, White retweets some of his most cruel and ignorant attackers. These attacks are not about White’s dedication to the NBA. They aren’t about whether he’s using his anxiety unfairly. These tweets are pure hate, the kind of fanatical hate you might see directed at a political or religious figure. Again, I don’t know Royce. I don’t know if he’s smart or nice or if he kills puppies. But this is a man who has made it to the NBA in spite of crippling mental illness. To me, that’s pretty neat. Why are so many tweeters, who know exactly as much as I know about White, so deeply offended by him?

I wonder if it has to do with sexism. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA),¬†who I like to cite, claims that “[w]omen are twice as likely to be affected” by GAD. However, sex disparities related to mental illness are sometimes blamed on differences in reporting. In other words, it’s possible that women are simply more likely to report GAD symptoms. The idea is that men (and boys) may hide their anxiety in order to avoid being seen as weak. (A discussion about why women are allowed or encouraged to be weak is beyond the scope of this blog.) Is the hate directed at White a biological reaction to an NBA player acting, according to antiquated concepts of gender, like a girl? Do some of White’s haters worry that his anxiety somehow detracts from their own manliness?

While our culture’s ubiquitous low-level sexism about weakness is clearly relevant to White’s case, I’m not insisting that sexism is the most important part of the problem. (I’m certainly not accusing Wojnarowski of sexism. Again, I’m not talking about him.) People are always weird about mental illness. Every mentally ill person has (probably) been told to “get over” their disease. Many people simply can’t understand mental illness. Many people are offended by the terrifying idea that you can be betrayed by your own brain. As painful as it can be to interact with such people, I hope that White’s twitter bullies are offended by mental illness in general, not just by men with anxiety disorders.

I have known and worked with several boys diagnosed with anxiety disorders. These boys have been brave, intelligent, adventurous, and strong. (Just like the girls I’ve known and taught!) If I heard someone bully one of my students the way people have been bullying Royce White, I would go full mama bear. I want my students to be able to share their diagnoses and get the help they need without fear of discrimination or attack. Royce White claims to be a warrior against stigma and ignorance, and his tweets reflect that. So I think he’s a hero.

Unless it turns out he kills puppies.