THEt appears the US has entered the age of the jock politician. First ex-Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville wins a US Senate seat in Alabama. Then Heisman trophy winner Herschel Walker kicks off his own Senate run in Georgia. And now former NBA player Royce White jumps into the fray as the Republican challenger to Ilhan Omar in Minnesota’s 5th congressional district.
After going public with his candidacy from the steps of Minneapolis’ Federal Reserve, White, 30, published a 3,500-word open letter rallying Black voters away from the leftist “plantation” and their “globalist” agenda while heading off opposition research into his legacy of legal trouble, his personal debts and unpaid child support allegations, and his overall mental fitness. He made sure to address the letter to “Democrats”, dismissing Omar and her di lei ilk di lei as bought and paid for while promoting himself as a populist. In between he invoked God, raged against Big Tech and its overlords and, well, came off more than just a little unfocused. “You motherfuckers don’t own me,” he wrote, hitting back at the tech bros. “You don’t own my mind. I will die for the rights and freedoms that this nation’s constitution affords me before I see myself, my family or my countrymen returned to chains. Your arrogance and petulance insults me to my core. “
His political ambitions, while certainly bold, aren’t entirely out of bounds. White is a longtime friend of the conservative movement and Omar, his opponent of him in the upcoming election, is a progressive Muslim who is a favorite target for the right. White has also appeared as a guest on Steve Bannon’s show and Donald Trump’s former strategist was one of the first prominent Republicans to endorse his run for Congress.
But the 6ft 8in White didn’t exactly maintain a low profile even before he started his political career. After being voted Minnesota’s 2009 ‘Mr Basketball’, an honor reserved for the state’s standout high school prospect, White signed on for the University of Minnesota but never played after pleading guilty to shoplifting and assaulting a mall cop. After his second semester he transferred – “reluctantly” he says – to Iowa State, where he proved to be an analytic nerd’s dream: the only player in the country to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
After posting 23 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals in a loss to eventual champion Kentucky in the 2012 NCAA tournament, White declared for the draft and was selected 16th by Houston. Whatever concerns NBA teams had about White keeping his head down were confirmed when he made his appearance in training camp contingent on the league adopting some form of mental health policy and the Rockets making allowances for travel.
At Iowa State, he had relied on Xanax and Benadryl to cope when the team flew to games and had hoped to manage the NBA’s far more intense flight schedule by taking the bus when possible. And despite the Rockets accommodating him, White remained at odds with Houston and was eventually traded to Philadelphia in 2013. When he no-showed on the Sixers, they cut him after three months. The following season White resurfaced with the Sacramento Kings on a pair of 10-day contracts. His NBA debut di lui – a home game against San Antonio – lasted 56 seconds and saw him record no significant statistics. Two games later, after fewer than 10 minutes played all together, he was out of the league once again.
But that wasn’t the end of White’s athletic career. He played professionally in Canada, dabbled in MMA and popped up again on the basketball radar when he was picked first in the BIG3’s 2019 draft. When he wasn’t being ejected for tussling with Josh Smith, he was tarrying on court to bring attention to the plight of the Uyghurs and working behind the scenes to help shape the BIG3’s mental health safety net. Before Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were being celebrated for prioritizing their mental health, White was being pilloried for the same thing. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, White emerged as a prominent figure in anti-racism protests.
All of this is to say White hardly fits the profile of the jock Republican. Unlike Tuberville he’s not an out-of-touch entitlement seeker. (An advocate for financial fair play, White wrote another open letter encouraging NBA players to start their own bank.) Unlike Walker he not only doesn’t run from his mental health challenges, but can ably articulate them. And as the pandemic has plunged the US into deeper denial about its collective mental health, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone in Congress making more noise about this. Sadly for this country, civil discourse is much too broad for nuanced and practical discussions about anxiety, depression and the overhaul the US health system would need to even moderately address these issues. And so far White doesn’t seem to possess the discipline for that debate. (Did I mention his open letter di lui was 3,500 words?) But that’s not to say he doesn’t have a chance of getting elected.
Name recognition goes a long way in Minnesota, an electorate that’s more fawning of celebrity than it definitely cares to admit. This is a state that sent Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken to the Senate and had ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura for a governor. Most likely, if voters hold anything against White, it’s him not logging a meaningful second for the Gophers. His stubborn self-determined streak di him might have cost White a lucrative NBA career. But those same traits that crushed his hoops dream of him would well lift him to dizzying heights in an entirely new game.