The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As biometrics boom, who owns athletes’ data? It depends on the sport.

A Southern California women’s basketball player wears a Kinexon SafeZone proximity sensor tracing device on her ankle during a game in January. (Kirby Lee/AP)

A smart pill detects an athlete’s body temperature and transmits it to an external device, so coaches can look for spikes that might impair performance. Biosensors measure a cyclist’s glucose to help optimize fuel levels. Smart goggles allow a swimmer to monitor speed, heart rate and stroke rate.

And, of course, a smart ring conveys the most valuable information in sports, at least in 2021: whether an athlete might be infected with the coronavirus.

Data collection in sports is booming, ushering in an era of the “hyperquantified athlete,” as a recent report from consulting giant Deloitte described it. From AI-driven video analysis to biometrics collected by “smart fabrics” and “wearables,” ever-larger amounts of data are guiding personnel and strategic decisions, driving talent identification and bringing in big money.

But the explosion of data around athletes’ bodies and health is raising ethical and legal questions. Most importantly: Who owns all of that data, and how will they use it to get better, faster — and richer?

In the United States, state and federal regulations covering biometric data are scant. The European Union has done more, but despite a global push for privacy regulation, the data revolution is unlikely to be curbed. The only remaining question is how that data is used by, for and against athletes.

“The real story here is the transformation of society, and sports, into data points,” says bioethicist Andy Miah, chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. “Athletes almost cease to be humans, and they become a series of data points.”

Jump counts and heat checks

In July, when the NBA resumed its season in its Florida bubble, it provided about a quarter of its players, coaches and staffers with $300 smart rings that measured skin temperature, heart rate and other health metrics. Smart rings also can monitor athletes’ sleep and calculate a morning score indicating whether they need more rest or are ready to train.

But for the NBA, the smart ring’s main job just might have been keeping the coronavirus out of the bubble. According to reports, the league’s “wearables committee” contacted the ring’s manufacturer after word spread that the device had signaled to a user that his body was fighting the virus.

The smart ring is one of dozens of wearable devices being used across professional and amateur sports to measure increasingly specific biometric data, from the proteins in athletes’ sweat to the strength of their grips.

Volleyball legend Karch Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and coach of the U.S. women’s national team, says he and his team keep close tabs on players’ performance and skills, including serves, receptions, attacks and blocks. But the primary analytic his staff uses comes from a sensor the size of a thumb drive that players wear in their waistbands. It tracks how many times a player jumps in a match. With that information, the team can mitigate the risk of overtraining and can better help its athletes recover from injuries.

“We don’t want to be drowning in data, or hiring people just to sift through the data, or a team of data analysts to figure out what it means,” Kiraly says. “There’s still a strong human component. The actual work of reviewing, teaching and learning is human to human.”

Volleyball is a “game of reading certain situations and evaluating them,” insists Jordan Larson, a two-time Olympian who took bronze at the 2016 Games. “I would say a majority of what we do is driven by instinct.”

But she and Kiraly acknowledge that advanced analytics will only further invade their process, including around simple things such as tracking statistics. “With AI continuing to grow, that is going to become a much more automated process,” Kiraly says.

Other sports, including cycling, are naturally more prone to collecting more data — and more prone to tension between that data and the athletes.

The glucose sensor, for example, consists of a small disc worn on the upper arm, with a thin filament implanted just under the rider’s skin. Patches can monitor hydration. Body temperature can be monitored through smart pills but also through wearables put on the skin.

Dan Lorang, head of performance of German professional cycling team BORA-hansgrohe, says part of a coach’s education should be how to use that information for the athlete’s benefit. Still, he says, “I can imagine that collecting too much data would become a problem and that athletes may fear that the information may be used against them.”

Because of the EU’s landmark privacy law General Data Protection Regulation, BORA-hansgrohe had to address this challenge carefully. In its contract with riders, it now stipulates that training data must be returned when riders leave the team. Medical data, on the other hand, is highly confidential and usually not seen by the team at all — unless “there is something that can affect the team,” Lorang says.

Who owns what?

If athletes fail to protect their data, experts say, the teams or leagues that own the information will be free to do what they want with it, including using it against players in contract negotiations or selling it to third parties such as betting or marketing companies.

“The long-term consequence of failing to own your data is increasingly diminishing power within your sector,” Miah says.

Federal health privacy laws don’t govern a lot of biometric data collected by teams, legal experts say. Although some states have passed more stringent regulations protecting the privacy of individuals’ biometrics, having state-by-state regulations can be a minefield for teams and athletes.

“The U.S. has been quite significantly behind [the EU],” says professor Barbara Osborne, who teaches sports administration at the University of North Carolina and has studied athlete privacy. But how concerned Osborne is about how an athlete’s data might be used depends on the athlete in question.

In her research, she points out that some labor agreements between leagues and players have begun to cover biometric data — including the NFL, which grants ownership of certain data to the players. “Professional sport is pretty well protected because of the rights and responsibilities of leagues, management and players,” she says.

But there are no such provisions at the lower level of sports.

“The youth and amateur level are where there is potential for abuse from a legal perspective,” she says. “People are not fully informed as to what data is being gathered and how it’s being used — and whether it’s being monetized by third parties.”

Osborne believes federal legislation should protect athletes at a national level, while the International Olympic Committee should oversee the process globally.

To guide future professionals in this complex new world, universities have launched courses in sports analytics. One example is the Center for Sports Analytics at Alabama’s Samford University, launched in 2017. The program incorporates data science, sports business, analytics, biology and physiology — and, of course, ethics.

There is “danger,” executive director Darin W. White says, in having “coaches or professionals making data-driven decisions without the context of a particular situation.”

“We’re promoting analytics,” White says, “but in a way that does not compromise someone’s rights.”

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