Enterprise

AI could help college baseball players reach the majors, but with little control over their biometric data

Data providing insight into the performance of athletes’ bodies is being used to assess their value, but baseball players have few rights when it comes to who can access that information.

Two baseball players with their positions overlayed in lines

The use of data showing how players' bodies move, breathe, sleep and recover from injury is becoming commonplace.

Photo illustration: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images; Protocol

They can only dream of what it’s like to burst onto the field in The Big Show on Opening Day, but Purdue University outfielders Cam Thompson and Curtis Washington Jr. are among thousands of college baseball players with access to more data-juiced tech than ever to use in the hopes of getting to the majors. One of the tools their team has tested tracks and visualizes every joint in their bodies to measure and analyze their dynamic movements, helping them become a split-second faster on the base paths or gain an edge on runners when they throw home.

“I was the slowest on the team,” said Thompson in a video describing Purdue’s use of 3D Athlete Tracking, or 3DAT, technology developed by Intel, which captures video footage and applies computer vision and deep learning to digitize an individual player’s skeletal data and calculate biomechanics. The data and analytical insights gave Thompson and his coaches information revealing that he was bent over just slightly when launching himself from a base.

“To the eye, you might not see this, but those first four or five steps were actually slowing him down,” said John Madia, director of Baseball Player Development at Purdue.

After straightening up his running stance, Thompson said, “It made me a whole lot faster, where I’m close to the top in the fastest on the team now.”

For college players like Thompson and Washington Jr. as well as pro athletes throughout sports, the use of data showing how their bodies move, breathe, sleep and recover from injury is becoming commonplace. In fact, while money was at the heart of the excruciatingly prolonged negotiations this winter between Major League Baseball and its players’ union, a clause in the final collective bargaining agreement addresses the data reflecting players’ bodies as another form of currency used to assess their value.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it illegal for the MLB and any of its teams to sell and/or license any player’s confidential medical information, personal biometric data or any non-public data.

Biometric data 3DAT technology captures video footage and applies computer vision and deep learning to digitize an individual player’s skeletal data and calculate biomechanics.Screenshots: Purdue University; Youtube

Right away, bettors and sportsbook companies saw the new data rules as a clear sign that players were recognizing the potential for their bodily data points to be used by gamblers to predict performance of specific players or teams. Some reports pointed out the fact that the MLB already inked a deal in 2018 that made MGM Resorts baseball’s official gaming partner — most including obligatory allusions to baseball betting scandals such as the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” and former All-Star Pete Rose.

The use of data measuring players’ agility or injury recovery progress — or revealing the impact of nutrition, sleep and hydration on their performance — has implications not just for betting, but an athlete’s entire career trajectory. While wearables, apps and AI-based technologies can produce data and analysis that can literally change the game for some college players, they have little control and few rights over the data associated with the very bodies that dictate their futures.

“Very few organizations cover it in their union contracts,” said Kimberly Houser, a professor specializing in emerging technology law at the University of North Texas, who studies athlete biometric data use. And, because no law directly applies to the type of data generated by 3DAT or other devices used by athletes, she said, “These device-makers aren’t really considering all of the results.”

Even the MLB’s recently settled contract with the MLB Players Association does not mention the device-makers facilitating data collection and analysis, Houser said. Without a separate contract between the league and the device-maker, she continued, “They have this false sense that they’re being protected.”

Intel has no official relationship with Major League Baseball. The company said it is exploring additional sports-related partnerships to bring its 3DAT technology to other players. For instance, athletic training company Exos piloted 3DAT with football players hoping to improve enough to be drafted to the NFL someday.

Skeleton keys to peak speed

For Madia, access to the 3DAT system has nothing to do with betting. It’s about helping the university’s players improve and giving its recruiters a leg up on elite schools, many of which not only can afford to outfit athletes with physical sensors to track their body movements, but already might collect and monitor their blood, urine, sweat or sleep patterns to evaluate their nutrition status in the hopes of maximizing performance and injury recovery time.

“I look at dozens of things a day that I go, ‘So what? How does this translate to winning?’” Madia said. “From a recruiting standpoint, this is such a cool thing for Purdue to have.”

In the past, old-school techniques such as timing a player’s speed using a watch or gauging the velocity of a throw with a radar gun only offered insights into which skills players needed to improve, but not how. “It was a little bit of guessing at that point — where’s my deficiency?” said Madia. “It’s almost a diagnostic that hasn’t been there to this degree, and I think we’re just scratching the surface on it.”

Unlike earlier technologies that required players to wear sensors that could impede their natural movements, one benefit of Intel’s technology comes through its use of standard video footage. The system can apply its computer-vision AI even to videos captured using a mobile phone camera. And by tracking each person’s full-body skeletal kinematics, it generates a slew of intricate data points.

“For any recording, we can analyze 2,000-plus types of data including joint positions, velocities and accelerations,” Breana Cappuccilli, an AI and sports technology product engineer at Intel working with 3DAT, told Protocol. She said the staff at Purdue, where she was a mechanical engineering doctoral candidate and graduate technical intern at Intel while working with 3DAT at the school, narrowed those down to around 10 data fields to devise metrics that could be easily communicated to players to help them improve base running.

“When focusing on base running, we identified key metrics such as peak speed, angle of attack and stride length to help the players optimize their form,” said Cappuccilli, who has since received her doctorate from Purdue.

Scout exposure

The fact that 3DAT can capture a player’s knee movements while jumping and landing at a fast-enough frame rate using a mobile phone camera is key for AiScout, a company that incorporated the technology into its app used by amateur soccer players and professional clubs. Kids and older players shoot video footage with the app while performing standard speed and agility drills typically used by scouts to gauge a player’s skills.

Once Intel translates video footage into relevant joint-tracking points, AiScout — which integrated 3DAT into its app in 2021 — analyzes how those points moved to measure how well a player performs. Richard Felton-Thomas, director of Sport Science and chief operating officer at AiScout, said that although 3DAT captures image data more reliably than other systems he’s tested, Intel’s technology could use some improvement when it comes to generating athlete data from video captured under poor lighting or weather conditions, or when a phone camera is much more than 10 meters away.

By giving players a tool to generate data showing how well they perform standard moves, the company aims to help expose them to scouts, whether or not they are part of the elite player networks where recruiters usually look for draftees. “Normally someone goes out with a notepad and a pen,” said Felton-Thomas. “They go down the same networks year in and year out.”

Indeed, it’s the data itself that could make or break a player’s career.

According to Felton-Thomas, the players themselves own the data generated using AiScout, and by choosing which teams’ virtual trials they enter through the app, they are the ones who decide which clubs or organizations can access their information. For example, Felton-Thomas said, “We do not take the data of a player who has entered the Chelsea trials and then deliver that information to other clubs or organizations.”

Players are beginning to recognize the value of the data reflecting their body movements and biomechanics, Felton-Thomas said. “It’s starting to be discussed more — in particular, the onus of shifting the player’s data to being owned by that player — or at least co-owned so they can use and monetize it themselves,” he said.

Now, Intel wants other app-makers and tech providers outside the world of sports to integrate its 3DAT system for use in health care, physical therapy or fitness settings.

“The uses for this technology go way beyond sports,” said Jonathan Lee, director of Sports Performance Technology in Intel’s Olympic Technology Group, who said that in the past year the company has focused on bringing the technology to other app developers.

While Intel envisions a day when 3DAT can tell an everyday home-fitness buff whether her downward-dog pose or squat-thrust positioning needs adjustment, the company would not say whether any deals with non-sports-related partners are in the works.

‘Ours with no restrictions’

Representatives of Intel and AiScout tout the potential benefits for AI-based phone apps to level the real-life and figurative playing fields for athletes and non-athletes alike. But future uses of the data gathered and created by these systems are largely unknown, leaving unanswered questions around data ownership, control and privacy risks.

Whether or how current laws apply to the type of data created in a system such as 3DAT is up to legal interpretation. For example, if a physician or team medical staff or another entity covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act were using the data, it would likely be subject to protections associated with that federal law, said Kate Black, a partner in Hintze Law’s health and biotech privacy group.

However, when makers of wearables or other devices collect and analyze data about someone’s body or health characteristics, the data might not be covered by HIPAA, said Houser.

If someone can infer that an athlete’s physicality is degrading, they could use that against an athlete.

It’s also unclear how state privacy or biometric data laws might apply. For example, while the Biometric Information Privacy Act in Illinois is centered on the use of identifiable physical characteristics such as retina/iris scans, voiceprints and fingerprints, it also covers “a scan of hand or face geometry.”

“It’s very likely in my opinion that cases will be brought under the state biometric laws,” Black said. For instance, she said data reflecting the way a baseball player holds a bat or grips a ball could be deemed relevant according to the Illinois law’s hand-scan language, possibly inspiring people to sue for damages under its private right of action.

Both Black and Houser said player data gathered, combined and analyzed over time could create unintended consequences for athletes.

“Data silos are continuing to break down,” Black said. “Putting together health or fitness assessments of an individual that combines their medical history, X-rays, biometric data, genetic information — I don’t think it’s too far off from creating a performance score or an individual risk score that could be used to inform [an athlete’s] recruitment to be used in any sport.”

“Intel’s mission for its 3DAT technology is to improve athletes’ performance and rehabilitation,” said a company spokesperson. “The use of this data is only intended for improving how people move more effectively, efficiently and safely. Intel and its partners abide by strict data privacy policies to ensure data is protected end-to-end.” The spokesperson noted that Intel has no intention of sharing data derived from 3DAT with other entities for sports betting or to monetize it in any way. Intel’s customers own the data generated by 3DAT, he said.

But for partners such as Purdue, the very definition of the data that 3DAT generates is muddled.

“At this point we/Purdue are not limited [in] our ability to utilize and/or share data from the 3DAT technology on our athletes,” wrote Madia in an email. He made a distinction between health data such as athletes' dietary information or muscle-to-fat ratio data protected under HIPAA and the information generated through 3DAT.

“The 3DAT biomechanical [data] which demonstrates posture, explosiveness, technique, is ours with no restrictions,” he said.

There are several risks associated with unwanted or unrestricted use or access to biometric data — from denial of health coverage based on information indicating an illness or injury to use by law enforcement or immigration authorities. But there are particular risks to athletes.

“The concern in this is that parties could use this information in contract negotiations, trade decisions, and other ways that the athlete was not expecting and may not desire,” wrote Houser and John Holden, an associate professor focused on sports law at Oklahoma State University, in a 2021 research paper investigating the subject of athletic biometric data.

“If someone can infer that an athlete’s physicality is degrading, they could use that against an athlete,” Houser told Protocol. And, because there is often no bargaining organization representing college players in such situations, they could be compelled to waive their data rights in exchange for maintaining their scholarships, she continued. “They’re in a much worse position than professional athletes.”

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