The increasing intersection between professional sports and wearables may help athletes avoid injuries, but it's also raising new questions about data ownership.
The NBA is reportedly funding a study at the Mayo Clinic that looks at how wearables might be worn by basketball players during games. According to a story in Grantland, the study, using monitors developed by Catapult and STATSports, is looking at how these devices might help athletes avoid injury by tracking movement data in real time.
According to the story, the devices can measure an athlete's acceleration and deceleration, the force on the body following jumps, and other movement data to identify stress and fatigue, which are generally considered to be good indicators of pending injury or the potential for injury. The Fort Wayne Mad Ants, in the NBA's Developmental League, wore Catapult monitors last season, while the NBA's Golden State Warriors reportedly rested two star players late in the season after data collected by Catapult devices and video cameras during practice indicated they were reaching extreme fatigue levels.
The Grantland story also posed an interesting question: Could this data be used in ways other than to protect an athlete's health? Could a team use that data in contract negotiations with a player, arguing for a smaller salary or stronger conditions because the player shows an aptitude for fatigue or a greater potential for injury?
"My greatest concern is how some of this information might be leaked or used in contract negotiations," Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA players' union, said.
A Boston startup, meanwhile, is launching a next-generation wearable targeted at elite athletes. Patterned after the Jawbone and Fitbit, the WHOOP wristband is designed to gather physiological data like heart-rate variability and skin conductivity, to help athletes and their trainers measure fatigue and recovery rates after injuries.
The company, three years in startup, is backed by $12 million in venture capital funding and is being used by Olympic athletes, as well as athletes in all the major pro sports. Company founder Will Ahmed, a Harvard graduate, told ESPN he envisions a 24-hour-a-day wristband that can help professional athletes measure their fitness at any given time.
"I thought it would make sense for athletes to invest in the other 22 hours that they were not training to understand how their bodies react and what they can do better," he said. "Because those subtle nuances make the difference."
"We're a step ahead of athlete," he added. "When they wake up, they get a score from 0-100 that measures their recovery. That might change what an athlete does that day. Going into the night, the device will tell you how much recovery or sleep you need based on the strain you put on your body throughout the day."
The ESPN story also raised the specter of data ownership, pointing out that such information could negatively affect an athlete's playing time or contract.
At the same time, an athlete who possesses this information could conceal important information from his or her coaches or team. What if a basketball player on a team fighting to make the playoffs conceals data that indicates he or she is fatigued, and that player is injured in a game – and as a result, the team misses the playoffs? Team owners would argue that such information affects more than just the athlete, and could have a significant effect on the team's business success. Suddenly the argument advances far beyond personal health and wellness.
Now take that dilemma and apply it outside of sports. An office employee is using Fitbit to track his or her daily exercise and wellness. Those readings may signal a pending health concern – heart problems, high blood pressure, or early signs of diabetes. The employee doesn't share that information, doesn't act on it, and becomes sick, incapacitated or dies. That, in turn, affects the company.
The questions revolving around safeguarding personal health information have been around a long time. With the advent of wearables, however, they're helping to fuel new debates. As they work their way into the professional sports arena, where money and win-at-all-costs mantras often go hand-in-hand, don't expect the answers to come any time soon.