NFL players grab a data equalizer in era of wearable technology

Even at the dawn of the wearable technology era, NFL receiver Andrew Hawkins could see where it was all headed. There would come a day, Hawkins said, when player evaluation and even contract negotiations would hinge on the presumably objective data collected from chips inserted in shoulder pads for practices and games.

A player's average speed has decreased by 20 percent? He's a declining asset and merits a pay cut.

His exertion load in practice fell this season? He's not working as hard.

His average distance from defensive backs has decreased by half a yard? He can't get separation anymore.

"It's a matter of time before it gets here," Hawkins said in 2015, when he played for the Cleveland Browns. "You just have to hope there is a balance."

Indeed, the NFL Players Association appears to have produced an equalizer of sorts via a new agreement with the wearable tech company WHOOP, which was announced Monday morning.

This will provide players with their own data -- information they own and have the right to sell and distribute as they wish -- to push back against the NFL's accumulation of its own data.

The continuous biometric monitors (CBMs) will provide unique physiological information that can demonstrate strong work habits, personal discipline and high-end conditioning, among other data sets. A handful of players have already received the WHOOP Strap 2.0 device, and distribution will continue this week in Philadelphia, the site of the 2017 NFL draft.

"I can totally see it," said Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc., the NFLPA's licensing and marketing subsidiary. "You could have a player who is super diligent in the offseason about working out and maximizing recovery scores, but also using the right amount of strain, being able to walk into a team facility and saying, 'I am someone who when I'm not here, I'm really busting my hump to be ready to go.' They can say, 'Don't just take my word for it. This data backs it up.'"

To be sure, many NFL lifers have pushed back against the influx of data into their traditionally subjective process. The league distributes location information from RFID chips after games, and most teams use some form of GPS chips in practice to measure exertion, but I struggled last month at the annual owners meetings to find a coach who found any of it vital to his daily work.

Even the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, one of the league's most open-minded coaches, called the game-day information "not particularly helpful."

"You can draw a few things from it, but it's new to our sport. Our sport is different from soccer, different from basketball. It's not as easily applied," Harbaugh added.

"All the coaches and all the organizations that are using it, and even the companies, are still trying to find out how to apply the information. What does it mean?"

In the big picture, however, industry advocates consider that viewpoint temporary and subject to evolution. Longer data histories will begin to provide more context, and more importantly, the next generation of coaches and executives will have been raised in a sports culture that includes both subjective and data-based evaluation. They'll be more comfortable with the idea and more likely to incorporate it organically.

That projection has prompted an industry scramble to align with the finite number of professional sports leagues and their athletes. The NFLPA's arrangement with WHOOP presages a number of big-picture issues that includes not only player evaluation but also the idea of personal data ownership and what that means.

The NFL uses what it collects during games and distributes some of it to its broadcast partners. Players now will have that option, as well, but Nassar acknowledged "we're in the early days" of figuring out how commercialization might work.

"It's kind of a like a gold rush at the moment," Nassar said, "where the only folks who make money are the ones who sell shovels and picks. You ask yourself, 'Is there gold in the mountains?' We think there is."

Will Ahmed, the founder and CEO of WHOOP, conceives of elite athletes as trendsetters for the multibillion-dollar exercise industry. The general public, for example, took to weightlifting in the 1980s and 1990s as it grew in popularity among athletes.

"I think there is a story to be told there," Ahmed said. "How do the best athletes treat their bodies to recover optimally from a grueling sport?"

Ahmed cited WHOOP's work with Olympic swimmer Connor Jaeger, who used a CBM during time trials leading to the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. Jaeger found that his body was still recovering from travel three days after arriving to the site of a trial, so he began arriving five days earlier to maximize his condition on the day of the swim.

"And he had an improvement in his times after that," Ahmed said. "One of the advantages here is understanding how travel affects recovery and realizing that recovery is a predictor of performance."

The wearable tech space remains a largely blank canvas in the NFL. But no one expects it to remain that way forever, and on Monday, the NFLPA took a seat at the table. We shall see where it goes from here.