As computers increase in ability to process large amounts of data and derive “intelligent” findings from their “analysis,” the demand for reliable sources of observations will likely continue to grow. Challenging this demand is the desire to retain individual privacy, anonymity, and even secrecy. This issue has come to the forefront of the national dialogue in the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal. Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the power of foreign state actors to surreptitiously obtain and use personal data to influence the outcome of an election. Professional athletics is not immune from the conflict. While the ability to perform analytics of on-screen player performance (e.g., play analysis) could be done without the use of any special sensors, accuracy, insights, and even biometric information can be obtained through the use of more intrusive collection devices.
Currently, only the NFL has specific policy on the use of sensors in its Collective Bargaining Agreement. NBA, NFL, and MLB contracts all contain sections dealing with microphone use during games. This essay will explain the specifics and provide analysis.
National Football League
The NFL has the most expansive policy on collection devices. Two sections are devoted to on-field microphones. The first covers quarterbacks and the second, offensive linemen. The quarterback paragraph details the agreement between NFL Films and the players. Quarterbacks are required to wear a microphone at least once and no more than four times during a regular season. There are permission restrictions on use both during and after the game. The release can be delayed if it places the team at a competitive disadvantage.
Offensive linemen can be required to wear microphones that are embedded in the player’s shoulder pads. Only trained technicians-note, this would likely not be a player-may install the device. They will be “opened” after the offense breaks the huddled and “closed” shortly after the snap of the ball. Transmissions are encrypted and cannot come from the locker room or bench area. Further, the NFL disclaims any offensive content and reserves the right to cancel a broadcaster’s privilege at any time.
Interestingly, the NFL is allowed to require players to wear “sensors or other nonobtrusive tracking devices for purposes of collecting information regarding the performance of NFL games, including players’ performances and movements, as well as medical and other player safety-related data.”
National Basketball Association
The NBA requires players to wear a wireless microphone upon request and subject to conditions and limitations. Broadcasts and recordings can be made “during any game or practice, including warm-up periods and going to and from the locker room to the playing floor.” Audio captured “may be used in any manner for publicity or promotional purposes.” Audio can only be aired live with consent of the player. He also has the right to exclude it from being used if he believes it to be prejudicial or detrimental. There are restrictions on how often a player may be required to wear the microphone.
Major League Baseball
The agreement concerning microphones and professional baseball is significantly shorter. Attaching a microphone to any unformed personnel requires approval from the Commissioner’s Office.
It is possible that the National Football League’s sensor policy is due, in part, to the number of players on the field and complexity of play. While both types of devices-sensors and microphones-increase perception, the auditory information obtained from microphones is generally more useful for painting a better picture of the team dynamic on the court or for use in dispute adjudication. On the other hand, motion sensors and their ilk enhance the ability to monitor on-field performance and patterns. These insights can be immediately helpful for in-season analysis and review. Further, the data collected can help determine player value when renewing and making contracts or making trades. The NFL has specific rules on helmet installation; this may be the result of the many concussion-related lawsuits. Installation rules are, in part, related to the current sophistication of the devices. As the technology improves and becomes easier to install, these devices may be more ubiquitous throughout the sports world. In short, data collection in professional and amateur athletics will likely continue to be part of the national dialogue and sports industry well into the future.