After all, it’s not just the NBA that’s grappling with the idea of tracking biometric data; wearables have been creeping around the edges of other American professional sports as well. They’ve been in use in a limited capacity in Major League Baseball since 2016, when the league approved two devices, one a special sleeve fitted with sensors aimed at understanding stress on pitchers’ arms and another tracking a player’s heart rate, skin temperature, and sleep cycle; some teams in the National Football League, meanwhile, are using microchips in players’ jerseys to gather similar information in practice but not during games. The rollout’s been a bit slower in the NHL, which has only recently introduced the kind of motion-tracking hardware that’s been commonplace in other sports for years, but advocates of the technology see the sport as a natural fit.
A similar conversation is also happening outside of professional sports. Already, many employers have begun to embrace “big data,” often comparing it to the early-2000s statistical revolution in sports immortalized in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball. Some startups have even taken aim at introducing wearables into conventional offices in order to track things like the physical whereabouts of employees.
But it’s in basketball, which has already seen multiple dustups over wearables, and where the league has taken to actively pitching the devices at its annual tech summit, that the conversation’s been the most instructive when it comes to understanding where the controversy lies.
For now, the right to opt out of using biometric trackers is enshrined in the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement, the 600-page document outlining relations between the league, the teams, and the players’ union that takes effect in the fall. According to a three-page section on wearables, the devices are prohibited in games, and use in practice is strictly voluntary and constrained to one of six brands. Any team requesting a player wear one must explain, in writing, what’s being tracked and how the team will use the information, not only to the player himself but also to a six-person panel comprising three representatives for the players’ union and three for the league. Most importantly, the agreement says that “data collected from a Wearable worn at the request of a team may be used for player health and performance purposes and Team on-court tactical and strategic purposes only. The data may not be considered, used, discussed or referenced for any other purpose such as in negotiations regarding a future Player Contract or other Player Contract transaction,” under penalty of a $250,000 fine.
This is, at least nominally, a significant exemption: It means that a player doesn’t have to worry about his coaches, managers, and trainers basing the value of his next contract on whether his heart rate fluctuates enough during a game or whether he gets dehydrated too quickly. That’s not to say that teams won’t find other ways to use the data. Alan Milstein, an adjunct professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law who specializes in sports and bioethics, suggests that the biggest potential value will come from understanding how players rest and recover. “For the teams, they would like to know how their aging players are doing on and off the field—how are they recovering from games, how are they recovering from workouts,” he says. By studying these variables, teams can use wearables to help players fight fatigue and stave off injury: If the tracker suggests that a player’s body is overtaxed, whether in the middle of a game or during practice, the team can use the data to justify giving him time off, helping make sure that everybody’s ready come playoff time.