The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement doesn't go into effect until July 1, but the lawyers who put it together clearly had an eye on the future. Included in Article XXII, which covers Player Health and Wellness, is a section devoted to Wearables, which are biometric devices that are capable of monitoring a person's health.
Players are already using them, so the league was smart to address the topic in its new agreement with the union to try to get a handle on the issue. A recent ESPN piece pointed out that DeAndre Jordan wore a WHOOP device on his right wrist during a February game against the Knicks, and while the league has told players in the past this wasn't allowed, there is now explicit language in the CBA that prohibits it.
"Pending an agreement between the parties, Wearables may not be used in games, and no player data collected from a Wearable worn at the request of a Team may be made available to the public in any way or used for any commercial purpose."
Will the NBA be next? There are plenty of questions regarding player privacy and how teams might be tempted to use the data for less-than-altruistic purposes, so we sat down with Will Ahmed, the founder and CEO of WHOOP, to try to get some answers on how this all would work.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
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WHOOP measures recovery, strain and sleep performance
FOX Sports: "In the league’s new collective bargaining agreement that goes into effect July 1, wearable devices are prohibited from being worn in NBA games. Besides the obvious, that it’d be good for business for you guys, why do you believe the league should allow players to wear these things during games?"
Will Ahmed: "I think whenever you’re talking about wearing something during games, you have to follow a process to evaluate the technology, right? First and foremost you want to make sure that the players are comfortable wearing the technology — that means comfort from a standpoint of, is it comfortable to wear? And also, do they feel good about why they’re wearing it? What’s the purpose behind it? So that’s the starting point, and then you also have to look at the safety issues around it.
"Does the technology pose any safety concerns for players obviously moving at a fast pace in an athletic environment? Once you understand whether the players are comfortable wearing it and whether or not it affects the safety, that’s when I think you’re in a position to approve the technology.
"In the case of WHOOP, we’ve seen players in the NBA wearing WHOOP continuously — during practices, while they’re sleeping, actually during games. And we haven’t told them to wear it during games, this is something they’re voluntarily doing on their own. The players actually want to wear WHOOP during games themselves. And so that I think really checks the first box from an approval process, which is like, OK, not only are they comfortable from a wearability standpoint, but they’re fascinated by the data. The second piece obviously is safety, and our sensor is so small and lightweight, that in the hundreds of instances where players have been wearing WHOOP during NBA games, no one noticed. So I think that speaks to the fact that this isn’t a safety threat, either.
"I think that you should be empowering the players to really understand their bodies. This is an opportunity for players to better understand their bodies, be healthier, have longer careers. And that’s really something that I think the players, the teams and the fans all benefit from."
DeAndre Jordan wearing the device under a wristband during a game against the Knicks
FOX Sports: "You mentioned the safety issue, and in the league’s collective bargaining agreement it says in order for a device to be approved, it would have to consider whether the device could be “potentially harmful” to anyone, including the player wearing it. Could you see anybody being able to make that case about your device? Have you tested impact? For instance, could the device shatter?"
Will Ahmed: "We’ve done all the most advanced testing from a manufacturing standpoint. We work with one of the biggest manufacturers in the world, and in order to get in-game approval for Major League Baseball, we had to fire 85 mile-per-hour fastballs at the WHOOP device. We went through a pretty rigorous process with them to get approval, and I would argue that baseball has more risks associated with it than the NBA because of the bats and because of the fastballs."
Brad PennerBrad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Lowry's testimonial appears on the company's website
FOX Sports: "One of the things the NBA is going to look for in approving a device for use is whether the wearable’s functionality has been validated. How would you address validation in terms of the WHOOP device?"
Will Ahmed: "I think there’s a few different ways to think about validation. One is validation from a technological standpoint, and we’ve calibrated WHOOP against electrocardiograms, chest straps, we’ve collected hundreds of thousands of data sets, we’ve written white papers on how our data correlates with in-game performance and we’ve worked with thousands of athletes — literally the best athletes in the world across every professional sports league, every collegiate sports conference, a large number of Olympians, and within the military. So without that technological validation, I don’t think we’d have WHOOP on these athletes’ wrists in the first place.
"The second piece of the validation is really around, are the athletes seeing value in the data? And that’s the bottom line here, right? An athlete wants to wear something that he or she believes is going to help them better understand their body. Like, who is anyone to say that they shouldn’t be able to do that? I think it’s so important that athletes be empowered to understand their bodies. And that ultimately leads to better recovery, better performance, longer careers — and literally everyone benefits from that."
Matthew Dellavedova once wore a WHOOP during a game while playing for the Cavaliers
FOX Sports: "There are provisions in the new CBA about how teams can and can’t use the data — in contract negotiations, for example. Like, a team wouldn’t be able to say, hey look, I’m not going to pay this guy because the data on the wearable device shows X, Y or Z.
"The data collection issue is sort of the big thing, it seems, with both the NBA and the Players Association. They want to really be careful about how that’s managed. Do you think teams should even have access to that data? Should it be something just for the players, or do you think teams should be able to monitor and have access to that data, for whatever reason?"
Will Ahmed: "Our stance at WHOOP is that it’s not our job to determine what data is shared or owned between players and coaches. It’s our role to create technology that empowers either party to have the proper privacy in place. So to that point, privacy is not binary. Everyone’s looking at this in terms of, either the team can see everything or nothing. And that’s the furthest thing from how to think about privacy.
"In the case of player data, it’s very much the case that you need to have different layers. And with our team dashboard, the WHOOP elite system allows for 27 different layers of privacy sharing. So that means that coaches, trainers, administrators could see anything from everything about an athlete, to just the color of their recovery in the morning, to just the workout intensity to very specific singular things. And an athlete can see everything about his or her body. So we really believe that an athlete should have access to all of the data to see everything about their own bodies — they’re managing this information themselves on their phones. That’s where the privacy comes in, when an athlete gets comfortable using the product, and he or she is in a position to say, 'OK, well, if my trainer knew my level of recovery before our workouts together, that would actually help me have more optimal workouts. OK, I feel comfortable sharing recovery with my trainer. I’m not sharing everything about my body, but I’m sharing recovery, and I’m sharing it with my trainer.'
"We’ve seen this at a number of different levels. Professional athletes tend to feel comfortable sharing everything about their bodies, but with very few people. Collegiate athletes tend to feel comfortable sharing summary information, but with a large number of people, like their teammates, coaches and trainers. The important thing from a WHOOP standpoint is that we’re enabling teams and players to feel comfortable exchanging data.
"There are certain pieces of information that are non-invasive which can actually help an athlete be better-trained or be better-utilized. And that benefits the athlete as much as it benefits the teams. It’s finding that right balance within those layers of privacy."