Use of Athletes as Science Experiments: Are We Next?

John Calipari, University of Kentucky basketball coach, is a renowned and often controversial figure. He is also one of the first coaches to implement the use of heart-rate monitors during team practices to push his players beyond their comfort zones into complete physical exhaustion. Not only do the heart-rate monitors measure players’ exertion rates, but they also keep track of caloric burn. While the original purpose of these devices was to measure player exhaustion and help prevent potential injuries via the breakdown of the body, one cannot help but question if this is really how these devices are being used today.

Professional leagues around the world, including the National Basketball Association (“NBA”), the National Football Association (“NFL”), the Australian Football League (“AFL”), and the English Premier League (“Premier League”), have implemented similar devices in the form of wearable GPS devices, in order to monitor fatigue, track player movements in relation to each other, plan team strategies, and improve training. The technology has been praised as providing vital data for teams, as well as functioning as a unique way to improve the fan experience. For example, while watching a sporting event, fans can purchase an app to track details such as how far and fast their favorite player has run, or whether a player is fatigued. However, there have been a rising number of concerns about the use of such data crossing over from performance purposes to an invasion of player privacy. Do fans really need all this information to enjoy watching the game, or is it simply a ploy to line the pockets of team owners?

In the NBA, some teams have already taken the use of technology a step further and have begun appraising players’ diets, supervising their sleeping habits, and testing their blood on a regular basis. NBA teams have learned that what players do in their private lives can have a significant impact on their performance on the court. Thus, with the right set of data, the team owners are convinced that they can advise players on changes that can be made to improve performance, as well as to help prevent overexertion and soft-tissue damage. Nonetheless, a problem occurs when teams start benching a star player before he suffers a projected injury, or when a backup player is cut because he suspiciously has a consistent spike in fatigue level after 2 AM on road trips. Team owners could clandestinely refuse to sign players based on what technology projects as a potential risk for certain injuries, or deem them unfit to play for the team due to lifestyle choices that occur outside of the boundaries of their job. Alarmingly, players have little to no control over which information is collected from them, where that information goes, and who sees it.

Already the NFL has set up a fantasy football platform that allows fans to access a large amount of historical, contemporary, and third-party sporting data. This data “enable[s] fans not only to be more engaged with football in general, but allows them to be better informed in regards to their decision-making capabilities when playing fantasy football.” Essentially, player information, including detailed injury reports, are provided to casual fans who can make large amounts of money in fantasy leagues from this real-time data, and the players have no say or control over where their personal information goes or how it is being used. Team management is “setting the terms of the discussion in a way that will give players relatively little power over which information is collected from them.” Arguably, de facto coercion of players to revamp their private lives in the service of their sport represents way too much oversight and a breach of proper relations between employers and employees.

Even more concerning is that further discussion has been broached about professional leagues injecting minimally invasive implantables into players’ bodies to feed back key biometric information and sequence player DNA. Since when did players become test subjects? While it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information, under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (2008), there may be other ways team executives can maneuver around the law. Team executives could undoubtedly, and without much backlash, argue that decisions to bench or cut players were made based on a player’s attitude or on-court performance, not the fact that a doctor evaluated the player’s DNA and gauged that he was more at risk for a serious knee injury.

The rise in health data tracking technologies expands well beyond the realm of athletes, and into the arena of the common citizen. Apple, Inc. came out publicly earlier this year and said that it has changed its app privacy rules to ban the sale of health data to advertisers, while maintaining app developers’ right to share data from consenting users with third parties for medical research purposes. However, Apple, Inc. is just one of many technology giants entering the field of wearable devices, and not all companies have implemented the same privacy rules. As we experience various advances in medical technologies, do we really want tracking devices that provide information on our sleep patterns, heart rates, or calories burned to our employers without our consent?

Companies are becoming more and more conscious about employee health, as a means to increase productivity and reduce the need to hire more workers, and biometric data tracking, similar to that used by professional sports teams, could be easily brought into the office environment. For example, employers could make decisions about promotions based solely on an employee’s regular drop in blood sugar level in the afternoons, which impacts the employee’s effectiveness. Alternatively, knowledge that an employee’s sleep patterns the previous evening showed she drank heavily the night before a big presentation could be grounds for termination.

No longer is sports data merely giving athletes and teams the winning edge, it is breaching players’ privacy. If the sports world continues to invest in the realm of medical information as their primary means to gain a competitive advantage, without any regulation, the common citizen should be deeply concerned that what is currently used to increase the fan experience will undoubtedly creep into their private lives. We do not think much about it when athletes are the ones being monitored, but what will happen when the tables are turned and our personal lives are impacted? Are you ready for the new norm?

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