Jason Pierre-Paul Didn’t Start the Fire: How Athletes Could Lose Control Over Their Health Data

Like many of us, NFL defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul spent last weekend launching fireworks in the course of celebrating America’s birthday. Unlike most of us, hopefully, Pierre-Paul injured himself in the course of his combustible activities. While the extent of his injury, reported to be to one of his hands, initially was unknown, that quickly changed on Wednesday afternoon, when ESPN’s Adam Schefter posted a photograph purporting to be of a Pierre-Paul medical record, which indicated, among other things, that doctors had amputated one of the football player’s fingers.

The news of Pierre-Paul’s digital truncation would have come out before long– it’s difficult for linemen to hide severe hand injuries– even if Schefter’s source didn’t leak it, but in an era of ostensible medical privacy, Schefter’s tweet still was a bit stunning to see. Though laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act do not apply to journalists, Schefter’s actions still cross a line of decency and ethics.

One of the central concepts here is authorization, and as we move away from a time in which the bulk of athlete health information exists in conventional medical records and into a reality in which people, including those involved with sports teams, are embracing wearable athletic technology with the capability of pervasively gathering vast amounts of biometric data, authorization may become a moot issue for the monitored athletes. Seeing Pierre-Paul’s records pop up on Twitter struck some as “creepy” and “invasive,” but we may not be far from a situation in which athletes are indirectly pressured or directly asked to authorize broad disclosure of their health information.

In examining the “explosion of data and data collection” in the NBA for an ESPN The Magazine last fall, Pablo S. Torre and Tom Haberstroh wrote that

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 . . . .

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. . . .

“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?

Baseball fans benefit from the deepening analysis of the sport by writers at places like FanGraphs, who can easily query in-game data troves like PITCH/fx and Statcast to support their work, and recent work on this site highlights the leading edge of wearable technology designed for baseball applications. Will data from players’ heart-rate monitors and FitBits ever be publicly searchable on BaseballSavant? Probably not. Will they be leaked when the player is in the midst of contract negotiations, as Pierre-Paul is, like drug test results and Wonderlic scores already are? The mere existence of the data certainly allows for that possibility.

Reports indicate that Pierre-Paul still plans to play football this season, although it’s unclear whether he will do so as a New York Giant. Even a strong season, wherever he winds up playing, is unlikely to make him the most accomplished nine-fingered performer in recent memory. As we sit on the cusp of the “explosion of data and data collection” in sports, though, we nevertheless may remember the leak of Pierre-Paul’s medical records as marking an important transition point on the path toward the more all-encompassing biometric-data-gathering world. And also the part about blowing off his finger with fireworks.

(Header image via maf04)

Alec is a founding contributor at ALDLAND and a writer at Banished to the Pen and TechGraphs. He interfaces with sports twitter @ALDLANDia.

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John Thacker
8 years ago

HIPAA doesn’t apply to news organizations, sure, but it generally applies to the people who leak it to news organizations, if they can be found.

Stephen Hebard
8 years ago

Really surprised we don’t see more NCAA athletes’ records, as they are *basically* forced to sign their rights to health information privacy as soon as they commit.