Wearable Tech & Athletes: The Pitfalls

The treatment of athletes as commodities makes increased scrutiny inevitable


In the nip and tuck world of professional sports, the potential value of wearable technology is clear. Coaches and trainers can get real-time, in-depth information on their athletes’ performance, with detail few could’ve envisioned. Everything from positioning on the field to recovery-time following an exertion can be measured, analyzed and presented to staff as digestible, actionable information.

The potential value this tech can add to sport is huge. With an unprecedented level of insight comes and unprecedented scope for optimization, and in virtually no sport does new technology not present a huge opportunity to squeeze the extra - often decisive - 1% from players and competing athletes. The scope of opportunity is reflected in the size of the market, too; the already-multi-billion dollar behemoth is only expected to grow exponentially in the coming decade.

Despite the value for coaches, sports clubs, medical teams, technology companies and the viewing audience, very rarely is the athlete themselves brought into the conversation. Top-level sports stars will be accustomed to close medical scrutiny in the lab. Soccer players, for example, will undergo intense medical testing before signing for a new club, the purpose of which is to assess their likelihood of injury and their capacity for optimum performance. Players rarely fail medicals, but when they do it can be extremely damaging to their professional image as clubs see them as either a damaged product or lacking in commitment to their personal fitness. Imagine, then, if this level of assessment is transported to not just training and match day, but to an athlete’s private lives. Sports institutions having constant access to an athlete’s sleeping habits or their heart-rate, for example, arguably crosses what is at present a very vaguely-defined line.

The discussion comes back to the notion that athletes are themselves commodities. If a sports team’s remit is providing their fans both entertainment and success, the athletes are its assets. An athlete’s private life is already subject to scrutiny, but there is a chance that the information collected by wearables will influence a player’s valuation, and even their pay. Part of an athlete’s responsibility is to stay on top of their game, to maintain their fitness and eat and sleep appropriately. But concerns over privacy are valid. At what point is an athlete’s private life - which, of course, they are entitled to - compromised by the compulsory use of new technology? ‘Wearable technology is only going to consummate a process where athletes are commodified,’ said Alexander Mosa, CEO of Toronto startup MagniWare, that makes an adhesive biometric patch as thin as a second skin.

The notion of an athlete being hired or fired based on a stock market-like monitoring of their biometric stats is an uncomfortable one. The rise of wearables creates an ethical quagmire in which team coaches and trainers are contractually committed to getting the very best out of their athletes, something new technology could make considerably easier. On this point, though, it is unlikely that athletes and coaches will find their opinions perfectly aligned. For example, an athlete will want to cover a minor leg injury that has them performing at 95%. Coaches will want to know this information. For a sportsman, not competing has effects on sponsorship, on their value to a team, and their transfer fees - ultimately, their income.

Essentially, a line must be drawn. Performance monitoring on the pitch or in the gym will upset very few athletes, but over-monitoring or invasive monitoring will undoubtedly lead to complications. Brian Bulcke, when he’s not playing as a defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League, serves as business development lead for the sport innovation program at Ryerson University in Toronto. Bulcke has worked in sports tech since college, and is an advocate for implementation ‘done right’. ‘I feel like a guinea pig sometimes when we talk about athletes and technology, and I stress that we’re people too,’ he said. ‘We’re professionals, so I think the respect line on privacy, security and all that kind of stuff needs to be maintained in athleticism, despite being entertainment.’ Bulcke expects to see far greater engagement from athletes themselves in the rise of wearables as the technology approaches ubiquity. ‘It’s the athletes and the people on the frontline that will help define the industry. We’re the early adopters but we’re also a megaphone for the rest of the athletes in the market. Over the years we’ll see more and more athletes permeate into the wearables space.’

Some see the invasion of privacy as, in some ways, justified. The mind-blowing salaries paid to top-level sports stars leaves spectators with little sympathy, and many consider increased scrutiny just par for the course in a world where the finest margins can determine success or failure. In no other industry, though, are staff so rigorously monitored. The treatment of athletes as commodities is problematic enough already - soccer players being bought or sold cross-continent at increasingly young ages, for example, comes with its own set of complications. Wearables will have be utilized warily and, essentially, only those being monitored can decide if the technology is invasive. Athletes’ lives are already under spotlights, perhaps its best they’re not put under the microscope as well. 

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