How the NBA’s seemingly helpful smart rings have complex implications for player rights

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with the NBA’s technology suggestion to players for its resumption of the 2019-20 season.

The league is making a smart ring available that tracks detailed health information in real time. The product, made by the company Oura, can sense elevated temperature. Because fevers are a primary symptom of COVID-19, that’s a useful feature these days.

But there could be unintended consequences of normalizing wearable technology in professional sports, a trend that’s gained steam in recent years. It’s a bigger deal in the long term than it might seem.

The potential problem is one of personal freedom, privacy and basic employee rights. It’s something the corporate world is already reckoning with, and in some cases leading workers to raise alarm.

Right now, health details obtained by the Oura ring are deemed personal property by the NBA. The Los Angeles Times reports the league has promised the data won’t be available to team staff except to alert of a high-probability of coronavirus illness and won’t be allowed to be considered in future contract negotiations.

That’s good.

Once the practice of wearing health-monitoring devices during games sticks, though, what’s to say teams won’t push for increased access? What will keep them from claiming it to be pertinent knowledge in knowing what they’re getting from the athletes they’re paying millions of dollars in the next collective bargaining agreement? Is the swelling amount of data provided to teams a threat to labor?

Language in the current CBA specifically indicates teams are allowed only to request players wear devices on a voluntary basis. Limits are set on the ways teams are able to use information collected by wearable technology in games and practices.

From the CBA: “Before a Team could request that a player use an approved Wearable, the Team shall be required to provide the player a written, confidential explanation of: (i) what the device will measure; (ii) what each such measurement means; and (iii) the benefits to the player in obtaining such data.”

Also from the document: “Data collected from a Wearable worn at the request of a Team may be used for player health and performance purposes and Team on-court tactical and strategic purposes only. The data may not be considered, used, discussed or referenced for any other purpose such as in negotiations regarding a future Player Contract or other Player Contract transaction (e.g., a trade or waiver) involving the player. In a proceeding brought by the Players Association under the procedures set forth in Article XXXI, the Grievance Arbitrator will have authority to impose a fine of up to $250,000 on any Team shown to have violated this provision.”

In the corporate world, though, there are often no such protections for workers — a look at the worst-case scenario possible for the future of pro sports.

Companies incentivize workers to use tracking products such as FitBit by paying them to wear them and offering the devices at a discount or for free. They then potentally have the power to make decisions — such as promotions, demotions and layoffs — based on what they see.

When Kuzma posted his concerns about the Oura ring on Twitter, hundreds of people responded with some variation of “but your phone tracks you anyway.” Does your smart phone data end up in the hands of your bosses, though? Does it directly contribute to your career advancement? Because that’s the possible stakes of the future of team monitored wearable technology.

Another expected counter to concerns about the Oura ring and similar technologies is that teams already have an abundance of information anyway. Players regularly get screened by club doctors and undergo invasive medical procedures under the blessing of their employers. Many of the details regarding their personal wellbeing is already compromised.

That might be true, but the real-time aspect of wearable devices and ability to measure a wide range of internal performance details takes things a step further.

This isn’t the first time athletes have faced the prospect of wearable technology encroaching on their rights. These products have been around for years, and other leagues have actually gone further than the NBA in their acceptance of them. The NFL, for example, dove into radio frequency identification technology a couple of years ago and hasn’t looked back, making it the basis of its NextGen Stats program. It also allows the use of collected data from shoulder pad chip inserts in contract talks.

Athletes are not cars. They should be valued by how they perform in the workplace and by their external athletic traits, not by how fast their heart beats on a fast break. What happens under the hood is their own business.

So when NBA players consider using the Oura rings in the coming months when they return to the court, they should continue to consider the long-term implications of such a move. There should be in-depth discussions going on within the NBAPA determining ways to keep wearable technology in check moving forward that can be implemented the next time it comes to the bargaining table with the league.

No infringement on personal freedom is ever marketed in a sinister manner. Instead, products are presented as a way to simplify or help the lives of users.

Sometimes the trade-offs are worth it. Sometimes they’re not. They should at the very least be thought about critically.

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