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With Wearable Tech Deals, New Player Data Is Up for Grabs

“There’s not a lot of protections for players,” said Tatiana Melnik, a health care lawyer, who noted that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act applies to medical records but not this kind of information.

She, too, noted that college athletes might lack say over how their data was used.

“How does a player know you’re not going to turn around and share this information with the N.F.L.?” she said.

The contract appears to give Michigan a degree of veto power, saying the data “shall be subject to university approval.”

Kurt Svoboda, an athletics department spokesman, suggested this was an important caveat.

“We would evaluate each request on its own merits and utilize our approval rights in the best interests of U.M. and our student-athletes,” he said in an email.

A Nike spokesman, Josh Benedek, said in a statement that although the company had not yet collected athlete data under its college contracts, “Nike has a long history of securely measuring athlete performance, specifically through our Nike Sports Research Lab scientists.”


From left, De’Veon Smith, Khalid Hill and Jake Butt in Michigan uniforms bearing Michael Jordan’s signature Jumpman logo. Credit Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

He added: “We’ll continue to use athlete science to inform footwear and apparel advancements for performance and safety. We take athlete data, privacy and security seriously.”

Language in the Michigan contract also appears in Nike’s deal with the University of Tennessee, reached in 2014.

The quandary presented by wearable tech data in college sports extends well beyond Nike’s deals.

Catapult, an Australian company that uses GPS hardware to measure how hard an athlete has worked, has attained numerous American clients over the last few years, including Notre Dame, Florida State and other prominent college football teams. In those cases, unlike in the Nike-Michigan arrangement, the teams own the data, a Catapult spokesman said.

The contract U.C.L.A. signed with Under Armour this year makes reference to “accessories with the capability of measuring biometric data,” but does not seem to grant the company rights to such data. An Under Armour spokeswoman said the company has not collected athlete data.

The Michigan contract particularly alarmed some advocates because of what they perceived as its broad latitude.

Although it restricts collection of data to games, practices and other events where coaches or staff appear in official capacities and covers some measurements, like heart rate, wording in the contract leaves the door open to tracking many other attributes, like temperature and sweating.


A Nike Swoosh was displayed on a billboard outside Michigan Stadium in July 2015, shortly after the university reached a new apparel and equipment deal with Nike. The deal kicked in last month. Credit Melanie Maxwell/The Ann Arbor News, via Associated Press

Wearable tech, though still in its infancy, is booming, and companies are hunting for advancements.

With devices like Fitbits ubiquitous in elite sports and among weekend warriors, several apparel companies have dipped their toes into the industry, which could grow to a more than $ 30 billion annual market by the end of the decade.

“Everything Fitbit is doing on a hardware basis, they’re trying to do in apparel or footwear,” said Camilo Lyon, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity, referring to companies like Under Armour, which last year spent more than $ 700 million buying three fitness apps, and Nike, which collaborated on a new, branded Apple Watch that was announced this week.

“There’s an arms race for technology advancements,” he added. “There’s never been a time in history in technology and athletics where the lines have blurred as much as now.”

Many professional sports teams have embraced data measuring — for instance, how far a player has run in the course of a game — to inform training methods, but in leagues like the N.B.A., the handling of such data is likely to become grist for negotiations between the league and the players’ union. In 2014, referring to wearable tech, the N.B.A. Players Association’s general counsel told ESPN the Magazine, “We’d have serious privacy and other fairness concerns.”

Christine Sublett, an information security consultant who counts wearable tech and medical device companies as clients, cautioned against the potential for hacking.

“Somebody who is motivated and has the right tools — and we’re not talking complex or expensive tools here — could get access to this data while it’s in transit, or in storage where it hasn’t been encrypted,” she said.

Hackers could use the data to influence sports wagering, knowing more about the physical condition of teams and possibly players.

“This is a place where there’s lots of money to be made, which means people will be motivated,” Sublett said.

Still, it is easy to see how Michigan, Nike and the players could benefit from the kind of collaboration hinted at in the deal, which was brought to wider notice last week when a retired lawyer, Bill Wilson, blogged about it.

“There’s a huge benefit to the player and the school — they can get treated faster, and potential long-term damage can be contained,” Melnik said.

The primitive state of regulation and conversation in this area reflects the nature of smart clothing, which has barely been commercialized.

But privacy and athletes’ rights advocates worry the technology will outpace the adoption of legal limits and standards.

“I have to wonder if Michigan knows what they’ve just done,” Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Stanford, said.

She added, “I don’t know if they’ve seen the size of the hornet’s nest they’ve hit.”

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