Data Collection In Sports: An Ethical And Legal Minefield

The use of wearables is more complicated than you may think


With wearables infiltrating every sport, the data collected by these connected devices is growing in both variety and number. You won’t find a training session anywhere in professional sport that doesn’t employ some form of wearable device to track the progress of the athletes and help shape coaching. With all this data, though, it can be difficult for data scientists and analytics teams to determine which metrics are actually useful, and the process of plucking meaningful data from a sea of information is tough.

Unfiltered data is without context, and without context, data has too little meaning to engage or inspire its audience. The example of a smartwatch wearer losing interest in their pedometer reading is a good one - you may find it interesting to know how many steps you’ve taken in a day, but for this information to be meaningful to you it needs to be with reference to other days, or months, or to show you the daily average for another person your age.

For data to be truly meaningful it needs context and representation that extends further than a simple reading. A smartwatch could perhaps pull your daily activity data, tally up the calories burned on average and then inform the reader how much they should be eating to achieve the desired results. This given the activity context, and users can see how one aspect of their fitness plan affects another - a notion that must extend to team sports and athlete data visualization and strong analytics can help sports scientists garner useful insights into their athletes, but often the swathes of ever-diversifying data leaves sport science teams stabbing in the dark when it comes to finding the next metric that could provide a competitive advantage.

For athletes, too, the technology comes with a whole host of potential complications. Essentially, biometric data is highly personal, and when temperature, speed, heart rate, sleeping patterns, calorie intake and distance covered are all under scrutiny, the job of an athlete becomes even more all-consuming than many would argue it already is. One example is Golden State Warriors’ 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, who used a Jawbone UP wristband to monitor his sleeping patterns in the 2013/14 season. The data collected was used to monitor his training and aid his sleep, which in turn improved his performances - he played for 12% longer having slept for over eight hours, compared to when he slept for under that time. Even with the clear benefits, though, Iguodala had reservations about the possibility of athletes becoming lab rats. ‘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 a switch and go to sleep,’ he said.

We touched on the commodification of the athlete in an earlier piece, but the argument around wearables is as much a legal one as it is about ethics. The issue is that the data collected by wearable devices has a direct impact on the wearer’s career, presenting something of a legal quagmire. Sportspeople will often share their image rights with their clubs/governing bodies, as a way for both to advance their brands. The question of ownership over an individual in sports is a pertinent one, and is confronted when these issues are brought to the fore. But physical data ownerships is a different thing altogether. Not only is it more personal than image, it is directly linked to performance on the field in a way that commercial interests aren’t.

Of the two parties, there is far less to be gained for the athlete in sharing ownership over their physical data with their employer, and there is plenty to be lost. Data can predict career-damaging injuries before they happen, making the athlete a less attractive prospect contractually to clubs and sponsors alike. It can betray a decline in performance - however slight - as an athlete reaches the end of their career, and it can reveal weaknesses in an athlete’s game that had previously gone unnoticed. A loss of privacy is easier to accept when being used to benefit both parties. When the data collected damages the career of the subject, though, the invasion is unwelcome.

As explained by LawInSport, ‘there are a number of factors that key stakeholders… should consider. The first and foremost is to have a full understanding of any and all obligations and requirements under relevant data protection legislation.’ Ultimately, the answers lie in communication, ensuring both parties are up to speed with the legality of the collection of physical data. Telling an athlete exactly what data is being collected by the wearables in use is key, as is how it is stored, the security measures in place to guard it and the club’s policy on deleting data it no longer needs. The digital revolution engulfing sports has many challenges to overcome, but the questions around ownership of data, and access to it, are perhaps the most pressing. The matter will only intensify as wearables become more and more ubiquitous, both on the training ground and, eventually, on the field. 

University lecture small

Read next:

How Are Higher Education Institutions Using Analytics?