The Rise of Biometric Data

NBA veteran Deandre Jordan shown wearing a biometric device, called a Whoop (courtesy of ESPN)

As the home-town favorite steps up to the free throw line to decide the game, the crowd subdues to an eerie silence. In the stands, fans slide towards the edge of their seats in anticipation. For those watching at home, they see different statistics pop up on the screen: how many free throws he’s taken tonight, how many he’s made, his free throw percentage in clutch situations. However, on the sidelines, the coaching and training staff are preoccupied in a different way. They are looking at biometric data generated from a small band on the player’s wrist. They believe that this data – the player’s heart rate, skin temperature, and his pulse – will reveal crucial insights into how their star’s body operates and will present them with ways to maximize his performance.

By 2020, the mobile biometric market revenues will reach $33 billion (courtesy of Acuity Market Intelligence)

With the rise of wearable technology over the past decade, biometrics, the statistical analysis of body measurements, has become a rapidly growing industry. With devices like Polar, Fitbit, and now your cellphone, your heart rate and sleep quality have suddenly been mainstreamed as statistics that correlate to improved performance and better health. Acuity Market Intelligence forecasts that the annual revenue of the mobile biometrics market will exceed $33 billion by 2020.

For professional athletes, the acquisition and analysis of this data have become a controversial issue. Should team officials have access to such personal information? If the public has access to this information, would that advance the development of devices and software? Could this data jeopardize players’ contracts and employment?

The rise of wearables has created this ethical quagmire in which coaches and training staffs are contractually committed to getting the best out of their players – something this new technology could make significantly easier. However, this trend of collecting more and more biometric information arguably might end up shifting professional sports from a market for players’ labor into a market for players’ bodies.

If we’re headed in this direction, it’s worth considering the risks associated with using this new data. Since qualities like effort can now be captured by heart rate data instead of perceived by coaches or self-reported by the player, this information might be considered more objective and indicative of performance. However, with the explosion of biometric data in a rapidly advancing field, scientists and analysts are more likely to mix up causation for correlation. If a team’s front office agrees with these “experts,” players could risk losing their job.

Very rarely are athletes themselves included in this conversation, but they offer an important perspective. After all, they are the ones generating all of this data.

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics panel, “Numbers Focused League: Football Analytics,” discuss the role of data in the NFL (courtesy of MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference)

At the 2018 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, a panel, which included former NFL greats, discussed the future of analytics in professional football. Tedy Bruschi cautioned this new emphasis on the more granular biometric measurements over intangibles like determination and heart. He argued that these emotional qualities might matter more in some contexts, like a player’s rookie year.

Regardless of the situation, it is essential to note that data is only as good as the user’s interpretation of it.

In an age where everything an athlete says or does is documented and scrutinized, the addition of biometric data further infringes on a player’s freedom. If the team is monitoring something as personal as your sleep, suddenly this whole tracking phenomenon seems like Big Brother. In an ESPN The Magazine feature, NBA veteran Andre Iguodala expresses his concern: “I just hope we don’t become robots where they’re feeding us the same thing, every day, and then it’s time to flip the switch and go to sleep.”

For some, this invasion of privacy is justified. When star players receive contracts of millions of dollars, fans are left with little sympathy. Furthermore, in the billion-dollar industries of professional sports where these stars comprise only a minute fraction of the players, the more resources available increase the chances that the right mind can turn this information into competitive advantages.

At the same time, there exists no other industry in which its employees are so rigorously monitored. As we saw, the biometrics market is increasing exponentially. The ethics behind tracking athletes is a vital issue to resolve before things get out of hand. Athletes’ lives are already under the spotlight; perhaps it’s better if they’re not put under the microscope as well.

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