New biometric tests invade the NBA
— -- This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's October 27 NBA Preview Issue. Subscribe today!
MORE THAN ANY other league in American sports, the NBA is an aspirational technocracy. Adam Silver, its flowchart-savvy new commissioner, travels the country championing analytics and innovation. The D-League functions not only as the game's minor leagues but also, per the NBA's official phraseology, as its "research and development laboratory." And thanks to the August sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, about 1 in 3 majority owners in the NBA can now trace their billions to the tech industry.
So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that Silicon Valley is transforming how teams scrutinize, optimize and fundamentally think about their players -- or that Dr. Leslie Saxon, executive director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California, contends that the NBA is leading society into the biometric revolution. "We've been inundated with all these companies coming up with different things to look at and test," says Gregg Farnam, longtime Timberwolves trainer and the chairman of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association. "It's the explosion of data and data collection."
But what might come as a surprise is how significant that explosion has been, and how far its blast radius might soon reach. The literary specter haunting sports' burgeoning Information Age is no longer Michael Lewis and Moneyball but George Orwell and 1984.
The boom officially began during work hours. Before last season, all 30 arenas installed sets of six military-grade cameras, built by a firm called SportVU, to record the x- and y-coordinates of every person on the court at a rate of 25 times a second -- a technology originally developed for missile defense in Israel. This past spring, SportVU partnered with Catapult, an Australian company that produces wearable GPS trackers that can gauge fatigue levels during physical activity. Catapult counts a baker's dozen of NBA clients, including the exhaustion-conscious Spurs, and claims Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as both a customer and investor. To front offices, the upside of such devices is rather obvious: Players, like Formula One cars, are luxury machines that perform best if vigilantly monitored, regulated and rested.
But to follow this logic to its conclusion is to understand why the scope of this monitoring is expanding, and faster than the public knows. 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."
No complaints have been filed to the National Basketball Players Association as of yet. But it is worth noting that these partnerships have developed so quietly that the union had not even developed a position on the concept until ESPN requested comment in August. "If the league and teams want to discuss potentially invasive testing procedures that relate to performance, they're free to start that dialogue and we'll be glad to weigh the benefits against the risks," says longtime NBPA counsel Ron Klempner, who served as interim executive director from February 2013 to September 2014. "Obviously, we'd have serious privacy and other fairness concerns on behalf of the players. We've barely left the starting line on these issues."
In the meantime, locked doors have swung open already.