A dispute between a professional basketball team and its most recent first-round draft pick illustrates just how difficult it can be for employers and workers to find reasonable accommodations for mental health issues in the workplace and highlights the need for meaningful collaboration.
Last year, as the star of the Iowa State men’s basketball team, Royce White was the only college basketball player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots. Many basketball analyst agree that, on talent alone, White was one of the top five players available in the 2012 National Basketball Association draft. His draft stock fell, however, when he disclosed that he suffers from a range of mental health conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. White further disclosed that, as a result of these mental-health issues, he has an extreme fear of flying.
NBA teams routinely fly all over the country during the course of a season, and White’s fear of flying was enough to dissuade many teams from selecting him. Recognizing his extraordinary basketball talent and with full knowledge of White’s mental health issues, however, the Houston Rockets selected White with the 16th overall pick and signing him to two-year contract worth $3.3 million.
Unfortunately, this bold and risky pick has yet to pay off. White has not played a single game for the Rockets, who at one point suspended him without pay after he refused to travel with the team or show up for team events. He also initially refused an assignment to the Rockets’ "minor league" affiliate. In mid-February, White finally accepted the minor league assignment, played for about a month, then, claiming he had received advice from medical professionals, skipped several games before returning for the end of the season. But, according to published reports last week, he’s skipping the league playoffs.
White had initially contended that the Rockets failed to satisfy its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act by not making accommodations for his disability. The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against disabled individuals. Under the ADA, the term discrimination includes "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless … [the employer] can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the [employer's] business." In White’s case, however, the practical application of the ADA is far from clear.
First, an individual is otherwise qualified within the meaning of the ADA only if he can perform the "essential functions" of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. The NBA’s teams are spread across the nation and play several games a week. Thus, given the geographic footprint and scheduling realities of the NBA, it would be impossible for White to drive to each and every away game. If White eventually pursues a claim under the ADA, the Rockets would likely argue that flying to away games is an essential function of being an NBA player. The Rockets "hired" White to play in its scheduled games. To the extent White’s fear of flying prevents him from making it all of the team’s games, he is unable to do what he was hired to do. Thus, the ADA may not apply.
Second, although the Rockets may have no legal obligation to do so, the team agreed to go to great lengths to accommodate White by agreeing to allow him to travel to road games by RV instead of flying. Further, the Rockets even agreed to cover the cost of White’s special travel arrangements. But White has repeatedly insisted that his travel restrictions are just one piece of a comprehensive set of "mental health protocols" he requires to accommodate his anxiety. His principal request is the elimination of any possibility that team doctors may be in a position to place the team’s interests above his own mental health. Accordingly, White wants the Rockets to agree to allow his personal doctor to make the final decisions on when and whether White is medically cleared to play. Given the great lengths the Rockets have gone to accommodate White’s concerns, at some point his continued insistence for further accommodations may not be reasonable. Moreover, his request for the team to cede its control over the workplace arguably imposes an undue hardship on the team.
Still, by all accounts White considers himself an advocate for mental illness reform. Indeed, his aggressive assertion of rights under the ADA has raised awareness of mental health issues in the workplace. Even if his demands have been somewhat unreasonable, it is refreshing to see a professional athlete willing to sacrifice millions of dollars for what he believes is right. Moreover, the Rockets have proven to be a willing partner, and, through continued negotiation, there is still a chance the parties may settle on an acceptable set of accommodations on their own and outside of the courts. If they succeed in doing so, their success will serve as a public example of the benefits of effective collaboration. •