If you thought recent hot takes on the use of statistics within sport was punchy — expected goals are the work of Beelzebub himself apparently — then that may prove to be just the opening salvo in a far larger, more important, battle over ownership of data between players and clubs.
Wanted or otherwise, media outlets are providing ever greater quantities of data in their sporting coverage. And yet the information that appears in the public domain is only a fraction of the data that is harvested by the teams themselves.
I got just a small sense of this when I spent the day behind the scenes at Bristol Rugby club a few months ago.
All the players wore GPS monitors during a training session that was filmed by a drone. But what I found really revealing was the sheer volume of information that the club maintained over individual players away from training.
Sleep, diet, body-fat percentage and even their mood was all meticulously monitored via wearable trackers, apps and questionnaires.
Bristol’s sports scientists explained how all this information would be deployed by coaches to tailor the length and intensity of training sessions to maximise performance.
By monitoring GPS data, Ben Cousins, a PhD student from Nottingham Trent University seconded to the club, hopes to establish a correlation between training load and injuries, a laudable and important piece of research.
Significant strides have already been taken by the use of data in injury prevention. But what if this data was not used for such a high-minded purposes? It does not take a tin foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist to recognise that coaches would be able to use this data to their considerable advantage in contract renewals.
Empirically knowing that a player is losing speed and strength would be a trump card in any negotiations. The value of knowing the intimate details of a player’s medical history is obvious, too.
Which brings us to a legal area: who owns a player’s data, the club or the player? And is it possible to apply the same data protection standards to an athlete as members of the public?
Omar Hassanein, the International Rugby Players chief executive, believes so and recently confirmed that there are live legal disputes between clubs and players over use of data.
“There have been cases in the recent past that have raised the issue of the use of player data,” Hassanein told the RugbyPass website.
“We believe players are entitled to manage their own private data with the same respect to their confidentiality that any other member of the public would be.”
The NBA players’ association has already ensured that data cannot be used within contract negotiations. Clubs may argue that as it is their technology providing the information then the data should be their property. Clarity is sorely needed.
Next month, the European Union will introduce General Data Protection Regulation, which will increase the rights to data privacy, while also demanding greater accountability.
Punishments for breaches are severe. Fines can go up to four per cent of an organisation’s revenue or €20 million (US$24.8 million), whichever is higher.
The key issue is likely to be one of consent, that a player knows exactly who is viewing their data and for what purposes.
Even then it will be difficult to untangle how a director of rugby’s knowledge of declining gym scores will not also influence contract negotiations. If nothing else it proves, once again, that knowledge — or data — is still power.