The Austin Chronicle

Sports' Body Politics

The ethics behind data mining athletes' emotions

By Kahron Spearman, March 11, 2016, Screens

A player's body, and the information it yields under pressure, is becoming as coveted as the skill it produces, raising numerous ethical questions in this newest frontier in sports analytics. Teams have paid for the player's skill – does that also entitle them comprehensive access to the player's being, in its entirety, from brain chemistry to his or her GPS-tracked location? Should matters as complex (and private) as a player's thoughts be analyzed at all? Connecting those thoughts to the tangible, will emotional and psychological stability become a requirement for employment?

Sports psychologists focus on interpretation of soft assessments of the athletes' emotional states. "There's a lot more to it than just the X's and O's, and [statistical] analytics. We know that context plays a big role in emotion, and emotion plays a big role in performance," says Justin Anderson of Premier Sport Psychology.

However, there are still large voids left to be filled. "[We] don't have a good metric to measure [player psychology]. ... If we understand what role emotions play in team chemistry, then we're going to get closer to [how emotions drive sporting success]. Unfortunately, emotions change daily, depending on sleep, blood sugar levels," explains Anderson. Those factors – sleep and blood sugar levels – are among the many dimensions currently being measured by teams.

Mark Aoyagi, director of sport & performance psychology at the University of Denver, says the science isn't perfect in terms of wholesale evaluation. "I try to triangulate that data with my own observations. We're kind of still at a point of psychological science where if what the numbers are showing doesn't agree with what I'm observing, then I'll usually weight the observational data stronger than the quantitative data."

This data mining is of interest not just to psychologists, but to ethicists, too. There seems to be an open stretching of limits, in regards to how much medical and psychological information reaches the masses. The NFL Injuries list, for example, lists all player ailments, which are widely disseminated on national television. In what other line of work would this be possible, or reasonable, to discuss in any open medium?

Of course, whatever newly found intelligence will eventually be converted into streams of new data, to be filtered and tagged into servers and subsequent print-outs. Exactly where do privacy advocates have a dog in this fight, in the discussion on the implications of a Big Brother-like data collection? Who should be in ownership of a player's data? Moreover, can the data be passed around in the same context as a player's scouting report?

Daron K. Roberts, founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation at the University of Texas, expresses apprehension. "My primary concern is that the data that players turn over to teams doesn't circle back to hurt those same players in the future – and I'm not just contemplating contract negotiations. I am thinking of the transfer of this information to third parties."

At a macro level, this inclusive data collection could lead to a reduction of a human experience found in sports – ultimately minimized to expensive, but simplified games of probability for maximum profitability. There's one very skeptical viewpoint that players will be funneled and parsed through highly specified ringers, to create the most efficient athletes possible. In a field that raises so many questions, maybe the most relevant is: What will be left when every piece of an athlete is accounted for?

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