Inside Slant: The other side of NFL wearable technology

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BOSTON -- Andrew Hawkins can see it clearly. One day in the non-so-distant future, an NFL player will be called into the general manager's office. He'll sit down at a table ...

"... And they'll just slide the paper over," Hawkins said. "You'll look at it, get up and walk out. It will be pretty challenging to dispute."

Hawkins, a wide receiver who played last season for the Cleveland Browns, was outlining a scenario he believes will result from the NFL's looming technology boom. Speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Hawkins said the pending availability of performance data will make player evaluation "less of a conversation" and more of an objective assessment, one that can be displayed neatly on a line graph generated by software aligned with GPS-like chips embedded under their pads.

It's a frightening proposition for many players accustomed to the subjective judgment of coaches and scouts, and leads to obvious questions. How much will objective data impact a player's value? If a team notices, say, a player's average speed in practice is trending downward, will he be judged to be dogging it? Or will the team conclude he is simply slowing down and cut him?

"It sucks," Hawkins said, "but you just understand the business. Whether you like it or not, it's going to get to that point. In football, philosophically, they would much rather use a rabbit's foot than actual data from wearable tech to win a football game. But it's a matter of time before it gets here. You just have to hope there is a balance."

Among the primary takeaways of the Sloan Conference was the quick saturation of wearable technology, in the NFL and elsewhere, that really entered the U.S. market only a few years ago. It has happened so quickly, however, that players would be wise to assess its full impact before joining in the excitement.

As we've discussed, more than half of the NFL's teams employ some form of player tracking during training camp and regular-season practices, ostensibly to monitor exertion and prevent injuries. And in 2014, the NFL for the first time tracked players during games in the same way. It doesn't yet release the data to teams, but it seems unlikely to remain locked in the digital vault forever.

As Hawkins alluded to, the NFL infrastructure is relatively change-averse. It celebrated the arrival of tablets on the sidelines about five years after they were available to the general public. ("And we still look at still photos with them!" Hawkins exclaimed. "So all we did is pay a lot of money to save paper. Why not look at the video? I'm sure we will ... someday.") But coaches are quickly adapting -- the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton strongly endorsed wearable technology at Sloan -- and there already is some anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness.

Hawkins, for example, told the story of a teammate who had a history of hamstring injuries before last season. Browns coaches used tracking data to monitor his practice workload more efficiently, limiting his repetitions to the point where he made it through the season injury-free.

Data might provide NFL teams with advance warning of a player's decline, but according to Brian Kopp -- the North America president of Catapult Sports -- it should be able to enhance a career first.

"Hopefully your career is extended by two or three years with this before you start to lose it," Kopp said. "Your coach doesn't want to 'catch' you. He doesn't want to cut you. He wants to maximize you and the careers in the sports that they play. I know it's going to be a big issue: How are you going to figure out what the front office can use, and what athletes have access to. It's something that still needs to be worked out. But hopefully both sides know the benefits. Teams aren't looking to get rid of guys. They want them to help win."

Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, who appeared Friday at Sloan, acknowledged teams would probably be most interested in collecting data to avoid team-building mistakes. But, he said, players will ultimately appreciate the context it gives to decisions that probably were going to be made anyway.

"I really don't look at that as anything that would bother me," he said. "I would actually rather them give me hard-core analytics, tell me what have I lost, how have I changed, [than a generic explanation]. But the important thing is to remind them that whatever I lost, it was in winning games for you. Losing speed, for example, doesn't mean that I'm done in my career. It's just telling you what I am now."

Given the state of labor relations in the NFL, players should probably cast a skeptical eye on any additional methods of evaluating their performance. You wonder if at some point the NFL Players Association will seek to make its use a matter of collective bargaining. On the list of issues facing NFL players, the availability of data might not rank at the top. But it's coming, and it's worth a close examination from every angle.