In August 2020, Marlene Stollings, the head coach of Texas Tech Women’s Basketball Team, allegedly forced her players to wear heart rate monitors during practice and games. Stollings would subsequently view the player data and reprimand each player who did not achieve their target heart rates. It could be argued that Stollings was simply pushing her players to perform better, however former player Erin DeGrate described Stollings’ use of the data as a “torture mechanism.” This is just one reported example of how athletic programs use athlete data collected from wearable technology to the student athlete’s detriment.
As of 2021 the market for wearable devices in athletics has a $79.94 billion valuation and is expected to grow to $212.67 billion by 2029. The major market competitors in the industry consist of Nike, Adidas, Under Armour, Apple, and Alphabet, Inc. so the expected growth comes as no surprise. Some wearable technology is worn by everyday consumers to simply track how many calories they have burned in a day or whether they met their desired exercise goals. On the other hand, professional and college athletes use wearable technology to track health and activity data to better understand their bodies and gain a competitive edge. While professional athletes can negotiate which types of technology they wear and how the technology is used through their league’s respective collective bargaining agreement, collegiate athletes do not benefit from these negotiation powers. Universities ultimately possess a sort of “constructive authority” to determine what kind of technology students wear, what data is collected, and how that data is used without considering the student athlete’s level of comfort. This is because if the student-athlete chooses to-opt out of wearable technology usage it may hinder their playing time or lead to being kicked off the team.
Studies show that collecting athlete biometric data has a positive effect on a player’s success and helps reduce possible injury. For instance, professional leagues utilize wearables for creating heat maps to analyze an athlete’s decision-making abilities. The Florida State Seminole basketball program also routinely uses wearables to track and monitor early signs of soft tissue damage which helped reduce the team’s overall injury rate by 88%. However, there are significant trade-offs including the invasion of an athlete’s privacy and possible misuse of the data.
Section I of this article will examine the different types of information collected from athletes and how that information is being collected. Section II will discuss a college athlete’s right to privacy under state biometric laws. Section III will discuss how data privacy laws are changing with respect to collecting athlete biometric data. Last, section IV will discuss possible solutions to collecting biometric data.
II. What Data is Collected & How?
Many people around the country use Smart Watch technology such as Fitbits, Apple Watches, or Samsung Galaxy Watches to track their everyday lifestyle. Intending to maintain a healthy lifestyle, people usually allow these devices to monitor the number of steps taken throughout the day, how many calories were burned, the variance of their heart rate, or even their sleep schedule. On the surface, there is nothing inherently problematic about this data collection, however, biometric data collected on college athletes is much more intrusive. Athletic programs are beginning to enter into contractual relationships with big tech companies to provide wearable technology for their athletes. For example, Rutgers University football program partnered with Oura to provide wearable rings for their athletes. Moreover, the types of data these devices collect include blood oxygenation levels, glucose, gait, blood pressure, body temperature, body fatigue, muscle strain, and even brain activity. While many college athletes voluntarily rely on wearable technology to develop a competitive edge, some collegiate programs now mandate students wear the technology for the athletic program to collect the data. Collegiate athletes do not have the benefit of negotiations or the privileges of a collective bargaining agreement, but the athletes do sign a national letter of intent which requires a waiver of certain rights in order to play for the University. Although college athletes have little to no bargaining power, they should be given the chance to negotiate this national letter of intent to incorporate biometric data privacy issues because it is ultimately their bodies producing the data.
II. Biometric Privacy Laws
Currently, there are no federal privacy laws on point that protect collecting student athlete biometric data. Nonetheless, some states have enacted biometric privacy statutes to deal with the issue. Illinois, for example, which houses thirteen NCAA Division I athletic programs, authorized the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) in 2008. BIPA creates standards for how companies in Illinois must handle biometric data. Specifically, BIPA prohibits private companies from collecting biometric data unless the company (1) informs the individual in writing that their biometric data is being collected or stored, (2) informs the individual in writing why the data is being collected along with the duration collection will continue for and (3) the company receives a written release from the individual. This is a step in the right direction in protecting athletes’ privacy since the statute’s language implies athletes would have to provide informed consent before their biometric data is collected. However, BIPA does not apply to universities and their student-athletes since they fall under the 25(c) exemption for institutions. Five other Illinois courts, including a recent decision in Powell v. DePaul University, explain the 25(c) exemption extended to “institutions of higher education that are significantly engaged in financial activities such as making or administering student loans.”
So, although Illinois has been praised for being one of the first states to address the emerging use of biometric data by private companies, it does not protect collegiate athletes who are “voluntarily” opting into the wearable technology procedures set by their teams.
III. Data Collection Laws are Changing
While BIPA does not protect collegiate athletes, other states have enacted privacy laws that may protect student-athletes. In 2017 the state of Washington followed Illinois’ footsteps by enacting its own biometric privacy law that is substantively similar to the provisions in BIPA. But the Washington law contains an expanded definition of what constitutes “biometric data.” Specifically, the law defines biometric identifiers as “data generated by automatic measurements of an individual’s biological characteristics, such as a fingerprint, voiceprint, eye retinas, irises or other unique biological patterns or characteristics that are used to identify a specific individual.” By adding the two phrases, “data generated by automatic measurements of an individual’s biological characteristics,” and “other biological patterns or characteristics that is used to identify a specific individual,” the Washington law may encompass the complex health data collected from student-athletes. The language in the statute is broad and thus likely covers an athlete’s biometric data because it is unique to that certain individual and could be used as a characteristic to identify that individual.
IV. Possible Solutions to Protect Player Biometric Data
Overall, it’s hard to believe that biometric data on student-athletes will see increased restrictions any time soon. There is too much on the line for college athletic programs to stop collecting biometric data since programs want to do whatever it takes to gain a competitive edge. Nonetheless, it would be possible to restrict who has access to athletes’ biometric data. In 2016, Nike and the University of Michigan signed an agreement worth $170 million where Nike would provide Michigan athletes with apparel and in return, Michigan would allow Nike to obtain personal data from Michigan athletes through the use of wearable technology. The contract hardly protected the University’s student-athletes and was executed in secrecy seeing its details were only revealed after obtaining information through the Freedom of Information Act. Since the University was negotiating the use of the student athlete’s biometric data on the athlete’s behalf, it can likely be assumed that the University owns the data. Therefore, athletes should push for negotiable scholarship terms allowing them to restrict access to their biometric data and only allow the athletic program’s medical professionals to obtain the data.
One would think that HIPAA protects this information from the outset. Yet there is a “general consensus” that HIPAA does not apply to information collected by wearables since (a) “wearable technology companies are not considered ‘covered entities’, (b) athletes consent to these companies having access to their information, or (c) an employment exemption applies.” Allowing student-athletes to restrict access before their college career starts likely hinders the peer pressure received from coaches to consent to data collection. Further, this would show they do not consent to companies having access to their information and could trigger HIPAA. This would also cause the information to be privileged since it is in the hands of a medical professional, and the athlete could still analyze the data with the medical professional on his or her own to gain the competitive edge biometric data provides.
Anthony Vitucci is a third-year law student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.