New Technologies Are Forcing Baseball To Balance Big Data With "Big Brother"
New technologies have made it possible for baseball teams to know more than ever about their players. This new data can benefit both sides, but it can also be an invasion of privacy. Where's the line?
Illustration by Elliot Gerard
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Last year, the Seattle Mariners gave their players the opportunity to participate in a new kind of training program. It was unlike anything the players had ever taken part in before. No one lifted any weights, or spent any extra time at the gym. Instead, those who chose to participate were issued something called a Readiband and given instructions to wear it around the clock.
If you're not familiar with the device—and not many outside of the field of athletic performance management are—a Readiband doesn't look like much. It's a small thing, black and rubbery and roughly the size and shape of a watch. Its manufacturer, a Vancouver-based company with the oddly evocative name Fatigue Science, claims that it is "the only scientifically validated tool for measuring the impact of sleep on human performance." Here's a simpler way of putting it: Readiband watches you while you sleep.
Welcome to the next frontier in baseball's analytic revolution. Many of this revolution's tenets will be familiar to anyone who works for a living—the ever-growing digitization and quantification of things never-before measured and tracked, for instance, or the ever-expanding workplace, the blurring distinction between the professional and the personal, and the cult of self-improvement for self-improvement's sake. These broader trends are colliding with baseball tradition on backfields and in training facilities around the major leagues, and those collisions have raised questions about privacy, security, and what employees owe their employers.
"More than anything, what this conversation makes me think about is the cut-throat nature of business in this game," former major league catcher John Baker told VICE Sports. Baker, currently a Baseball Operations Assistant for the Chicago Cubs, spoke at length about how so-called "wearables" like Readiband—as well as other performance-tracking technology widely in use around the league, from pitch-recognition software intended to develop hitters' ability to quickly identify balls out of an opposing pitchers' hand, to the pressure plates, imported from the NFL, that track players' explosiveness and strength—are changing both the game and the relationship between major-league baseball teams and their employees.
The changes aren't always positive, from a players' perspective. "I think they'll offer [performance-tracking technology] under the guise of 'Hey, we're going to help you out,'" Baker said, "but in the end the motivation is 50 percent to help [players] out, and 50 percent to help out the team. For example, they'll say that 'playing this brain game is going to help you react better to the baseball,' but they're also reading the data, and now they're going to be measuring players' capacity to do that." It's likely that this sort of highly-personalized and deeply revealing data about athletes' performance—often collected as part of programs presented as voluntary but are hard to refuse, especially for young players or minor leaguers who lack union representation—will come up in contract negotiations, or inform roster decisions on the margins. In fact, it probably already has.
"With all of this, player consent is critical," says Alan Milstein, a New Jersey-based attorney who practices in both bioethics and sports law. But, he told VICE Sports, player consent can be hard to come by honestly when the lines are blurred in the ways they so often are in professional sports leagues. "A young player, 19 years old, when he sees the team physician, is going to be under the impression that that physician is his physician, and that there's going to be some kind of doctor-patient relationship with some kind of fiduciary duty that the physician owes to him," Milstein notes. "But that physician really works for the team, and that creates a lot of ethical issues."
Generally, Milstein says, teams can test for information that "directly relates to the ability of the player to do his job." The key word, here, is directly. An MRI is a fairly clear-cut case. But how about a DNA test? The question is less abstract than it sounds—such a test could reveal a lot that might affect player performance, from a player's potential ability to recover from injury to their likelihood of suffering from various major diseases, all information that was heretofore out of bounds for employers. "You could certainly make a fair argument that leagues should be able to know whether a player has a [genetic] propensity to alcoholism, or a propensity to have a gambling addiction," Milstein says. "But it would be impermissible for a team to require that kind of information."
As new technologies raise new ethical questions, it can be difficult to divide labor and management interests cleanly. Incentives align and disalign across the range of complications this new technology raises. Baker, for example, was quick to recognize the ways in which player and team interests dovetail in totally benign ways. "It's not necessarily that there's an evil motive behind it," he says. "The motive behind it is that they want guys to perform their best." But, he cautions, "when you come into a situation where you're in [salary] arbitration, any information you have that says that a player is not going to continue to perform on that same mark [that he's been at before], you bring all that information as the evidence in your argument. Everything you possibly can, and you let the court decide." In other words, personal information can become business information very quickly, and one is never fully distinct from the other.
That said, for all the new technology at work, the questions being raised today are not new, not really. Ownership and front office C-suites have always had an interest in what their players get up to after hours, and have always had preferences, often strong ones, about how they prepare themselves for the game they're paid to play. And players have always had a stake, for both personal and business reasons, in keeping their private lives private. The challenge of this particular moment is that advancing technology means there are now precious few aspects of a player's performance—or, indeed, player's lives, on and off the field—that cannot be measured or tracked in some way, more often than not by some outwardly innocuous, quietly blinking digital device. The desire to track players was always there, but today it can be met. And boy, is it ever being met.
"When you talk about blurring the lines," Baker says, "It's like, how much do I work for you? If I'm in spring training I'm not getting paid anyway, not anything but meal money, and now you're going to monitor how much I'm sleeping away from the field, or when I go to bed? As an adult? I think there are some lines that can be crossed."
When the boss is just a Readiband alert away, it's understandably easy to feel paranoid. But today's players have new tools at their disposal, too, in the form of a powerful Major League Players Association. "Players are exercising—or, certainly, enjoying—more personal rights than they ever did before," says Milstein. "We're a long way from where the players were truly thought of as simply things and possessions of these owners. I think they understand they have personal rights and privacy rights like all of us do."
The boundaries are still being figured out, but some clear-cut cases can serve as a starting point. It seems eminently reasonable, for example, that teams should be granted access to some information about their players' ability to do their jobs. We don't blink, therefore, when teams require players to undergo physical examinations as prerequisite to a free agent signing, or when teams request copies of medical test results in advance of a trade. There is, clearly, room for employers to do their homework about their employees, at all points in the employment relationship. That much is not in question. But there is a diligence that goes beyond that which is due, just as there is an exercise of privacy rights that becomes concealment, and players and teams have sharply divergent interests in the debate over where those lines should be drawn.
Those debates are not wholly unique to baseball. But there are some baseball-specific wrinkles that complicate matters in the grand old game: in baseball, unlike everywhere else in America, employees are not free to negotiate with other employers for significant portions of their careers. That, in combination with a very weak union structure for minor league players, makes uncoerced consent hard to come by at the lower levels, and player leverage difficult to exercise. Imagine an office job wherein every keystroke, every mouse movement, and every roll of the desk chair is tracked and logged. Or don't—such jobs already exist. Then add a heart rate monitor, a live video feed, and the inability to leave for another employer to that picture and you have a general sense of life as a professional baseball player in the biometric future.
It all sounds pretty bleak: a Readiband on every wrist and Orwell on every bookshelf. But maybe there's a way to get it right. "I think that the real value of this technology would be if it was sold directly to the players," says Baker, "and they could use it as a self-assessment, and the teams don't have any part of it. Or the agency could buy it—CAA [Creative Artists Agency] could buy it, or [Scott] Boras could buy it and they could put it on their guys and help them out. Then it would be healthier."
On the one hand, this is a former player saying that he believes players should have exclusive access to technology that might harm them in the wrong hands. Which, obviously makes sense. The sky remains blue. But there's also something to Baker's suggestion: perhaps the Players Association could grant teams use of personal data about their players if the data itself were housed on union servers, and granted only after specific requests by the team for specific information about specific players. Or teams could be granted anonymized metadata about all players for research purposes, but would never be given identifying information about the players whose performance they're analyzing. Call this the "What The NSA Was Supposed To Do" approach.
This is a bargaining year for baseball, with the structure of the next five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement at stake, and so nobody involved was willing to talk much on the record about what's on the table. Reached for comment by VICE Sports this week, MLBPA spokesman Greg Bouris would say only that "wearable technology is an issue that we are paying a lot of attention to, and is mainly player-focused, and therefore of utmost concern to our members and the Association." Major League Baseball, through a spokesman, said that "Clubs and players have requested to use these [wearable] technologies in games and the Official Baseball Rules require that any new technology be approved prior to use on the field. We receive suggestions from Clubs, Players, and Vendors and send products through an extensive testing and evaluation process prior to approval. These technologies are for the use of Clubs and Players to manage and improve performance."
Official statements: they're thrilling stuff. But both sides have much invested in getting this right, and each seems to appreciate the stakes. The good news is, there are ways to make sure that both players and teams benefit from the new technology. Some are described above, and negotiators will come up with others during the bargaining process. If all parties involved are smart about this, they'll use the ongoing negotiations to write such mutually beneficial provisions into baseball's organizing documents, and so open up a future in which player privacy and bigger data are in harmony.
With a little bit of guidance, biometrics can do what technology is supposed to do: make the world better, and better-understood. This technology hasn't quite lived up to that standard so far because, for all its many virtues, its application is the product and province of the most unreliable, untrustworthy, fickle creatures in the universe: human beings. For all the new things that biometrics can tell us, they point back to one of the oldest human problems—we can't always quite be trusted to do right by the wonders we create.