Has the NBA's biometric data tracking boom gone too far?

Ball Don't Lie
Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis submits to voluntary player tracking. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Dallas Mavericks guard Monta Ellis submits to voluntary player tracking. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

For nearly a decade, NBA cognoscenti have argued about the usefulness of advanced statistical metrics like Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares. Recent advancements in the last few years, though, have made both sides in those arguments look relatively conservative. New optical tracking systems such as SportVU and biometric tracking systems like Catapult have allowed teams to measure players in terms of the efficiency of their on-court movement and their levels of exertion during practice. Franchises have more information on their players than ever before, which theoretically allows them to identify problem areas, improve more rapidly, and avoid preventable injuries.

Yet the expanding popularity of these systems has raised important questions about the ethics of teams tracking players to this extent. In a new feature for ESPN the Magazine, Pablo S. Torre and Tom Haberstroh dig into the issues at play and where teams may choose to track players next. It's not so much about the limits of knowledge as what teams shouldn't be allowed to find in the first place:

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Teams have always intuited that on-court productivity could be undermined by off-court choices -- how a player exhausts himself after hours, for instance, or what he eats and drinks. Now the race is on to comprehensively surveil and quantify that behavior. NBA executives have discovered how to leverage new, ever-shrinking technologies to supervise a player's sleeping habits, record his physical movements, appraise his diet and test his blood. In automotive terms, the league is investing in a more accurate odometer.

"We need to be able to have impact on these players in their private time," says Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro. "It doesn't have to be us vs. you. It can be a partnership."

A lovely sentiment, at least in theory. But how long will it be until biometric details impact contract negotiations? How long until graphs of off-court behavior are leaked to other teams or the press? How long until employment hinges on embracing technology that some find invasive?

"Employers dictating the health care of their employees is a conflict of interest that cannot be overcome," says Alan C. Milstein, a leading bioethics attorney and sports litigator who often represents NBA players. "I just refuse to believe that the purpose of monitoring on any long-term basis is the health of the employee. If the purpose is to predict performance, that's not a health care purpose. That's an economic purpose." [...]

"We want to be one step beyond what anyone else is doing," says Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, whose personal fortune was built on the comprehensive digitization of Wall Street. "Amazingly, what banks and trading floors were 20 years ago, sports is now. The stakes are huge, and we can act quickly." Just listen to his GM, who is thinking far deeper than mere skin. "The holy grail," D'Alessandro says, "is sequencing and understanding the genome. And how that relates to pro athletes on an injury basis and who's naturally good at certain sports." As part of his mandate with the Kings, he's consulted scientists about one day building a vast predraft database of player DNA -- not just for evaluation but for gauging injury risks and prevention. "You wouldn't have to be identified as a person," he says, "you could be identified as a number. I don't suspect this will happen in our lifetimes. But the way things have proliferated scientifically? Maybe it will."

History predicts serious pushback. In 2005, Alan Milstein represented Eddy Curry against the Bulls, whose management wanted the center to submit to genetic screening because of an irregular heartbeat. (Curry was eventually traded to the Knicks, bypassing the issue.) The core objection then, as now, was that genetic markers are not actual proof of alcoholism, or Alzheimer's, or cancer; they just signal greater odds of developing those conditions. In fact, as of the 2008 passing of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information for that very reason. Choosing to privilege reality over probability in that way, Milstein notes, "was one of the few situations where Congress was actually unanimous."

Torre and Haberstroh detail several instances of teams checking in (or wanting to do so) on players off the court, including the Golden State Warriors having Andre Iguodala and others wear wristbands to monitor their sleep. In truth, most of the examples are fairly innocuous and involve players undergoing tests that would figure to improve their performance with minimal invasiveness. Every player mentioned also seems to take the monitoring and its results seriously, to the point where the information revealed could not be used against them in any obvious way.

However, the piece also includes several statements, like those from the Kings front-office members mentioned above, in which NBA decision-makers indicate that they would much prefer to track players' fatigue levels with invasive procedures like regular blood tests. The stated goal is to keep players healthier so that franchises don't lose money in salary via games spent on the bench, but the authors are right to suggest that the same information could easily be used against players in contract negotiations. Unlike many who consider advanced metrics and related offshoots, Torre and Haberstroh know not to focus on the potential effectiveness of these tracking tools, because the people involved are creative and intelligent enough to glean some information from the findings even if they haven't yet (which is itself unclear). Rather, the question is if teams extracting data (or, as the recently retired Shane Battier fears, all bodily fluids) from players represents too much oversight and a breach of proper relations between employers and employees.

Reasonable minds can differ on the placement of that dividing line, but this article provides evidence that management is already setting the terms of discussion in a way that will give players relatively little power over which information is collected from them. Torre and Haberstroh reveal that the NBPA did not have a position on these efforts until they asked them for one in August, after which acting executive director Ron Klempner (soon to be succeeded by permanent chief Michele Roberts) states that the union would have serious privacy concerns about these programs and would need to discuss them as collective bargaining issues. But teams like the Warriors seem to have found a useful workaround to these negotiations through voluntary participation that slowly becomes a recommendation for any player worried about keeping a job. It is, as the article puts it, "the technocratic normalizing of surveillance."

Teams will understandably continue to claim that these programs are intended to help players prolong their careers and maximize earning potential, and it'd be smart to believe that those are among their interests. But their words betray interests that would provide teams with information they wouldn't appear to need. When D'Alessandro claims that teams "need" to know what players are doing in private time, he shows that he believes a player must to be subordinate to the team's ability to win games. Desiring the ability to sequence individual genomes is even more dystopian, the sort of circumstance that high school teachers push students to treat as allegory rather than fact. These claims are not driven by a magnanimous desire to help players stay healthy for the good of the franchise. They are the thoughts of a group of people with a tendency to name their pets and yachts after the work of Ayn Rand.

Those of us who don't agree with such invasive measures can console ourselves by claiming that they misunderstand what makes basketball teams successful. Some of the NBA's greatest-ever coaches, including Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, have been successful in part because they realize that getting athletes to perform to their full capabilities requires treating them like adults with complicated internal lives and competing desires that cannot be resolved easily. It's also true that many of the tracking-minded figures quoted and/or mentioned in this article are not single-minded — Mark Cuban, for instance, has spent most of the summer talking about how the Dallas Mavericks will succeed this season based on their superior chemistry. It's not as if the proponents of player tracking don't see the value of other approaches.

The problem is that taking several paths to building the best basketball team does not excuse one ethically challenged approach. No matter how much teams try to explain their motivations, the concerns will not go away until owners and general managers take these consequences — unintended or not — seriously. As long as some notions of privacy exist, certain efforts will cross the line.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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