Using Modern Analytics, Big Data, and Wearables in the NFL - Applications and Controversies

07/05/2016 - 21:55

Robert Parmer

Using Modern Analytics in the NFL - Applications and Controversies
As contemporary companies know, big data benefits just about any niche in the business world trying to advance themselves and pinpoint gateways to success. Although they are slightly behind the rest of the sports world, the NFL has jumped on board the analytically-driven success train.

Modern Applications for the NFL

Sports-related analytics have become increasingly crucial to strategic planning, communication, and the health and well-being of professional athletes. Coaches and players are beginning to witness these technological leaps firsthand, and the byproduct holds much promise.

The NFL recently teamed up with the tech company Zebra--a global data driven entity. They have helped many stadiums install intricate devices for data farming from around the field and in athletes’ pads. The purpose is to collect massive amounts of data on individuals of each team. Speed, acceleration, and uniformity will all be mapped out and presentable to coaches and athletes in a very cohesive manner. Real time collaboration will only continue to progress in newfound ways for coaches on the fly decision making.

Furthermore, the NFL has hired its first ever information officer. A unique platform is being developed that will be available to all teams and they will be able to easily access teams data through user-friendly applications. This will allow everyone to mine the data which will greatly boost coach and player education, refine scouting efforts, as well as create a channel for readiness and preparation when meeting a rival team.

Tack on the inclusion of linked mobile apps, VR, AR, wearable tech, advancements within in-helmet communication, and an almost sci-fi esque picture of the NFL begins to paint itself. It’s only a matter before pro athletes equip themselves with technology that’s miles ahead of anything imaginable in the past couple decades.

What’s perhaps the most important advancement in sports tech is the promise for heightened levels of safety for players. Ohio University highlights some of the future advancements in sports tech:

“One fast-growing trend in 2016 will surface in the form of utilizing technology to help prevent injuries. Sports science companies including Kinduct Technologies, Kitman Labs, and CoachMePlus are delivering results by collecting data, optimizing workout plans, and focusing on in-depth assessments of individual athletes and the ways they move and perform.

These types of tools and more (including tools like wearable microchips embedded in clothing that monitor muscle fibers, heart rates, blood flow, and minute movement patterns) are quickly becoming standard issue for professional and college sports teams.”

This shows a great deal of potential for the safety of professional football players. But while this kind of data can help protect athletes, some important details related to player safety have recently been shown to be manipulated and inconsistent.

The Controversial Side

A recent report compiled by the US House of Representatives Committee of Energy and Commerce spells out some inconsistencies within NFL data. The report, "The NFL’s Attempt to Influence Funding Decisions at the National Institutes of Health", offers almost 100 pages of clarity on this incident.

It has finally been spelled out to the general public. Six or more top NFL health officials have dropped the proverbial ball: they have been fudging the figures that correlate to brain disease among football players. They have downplayed a severe issue by manipulating studies which have in turn, negatively swayed government research on football and concussions.

These prolific figures within the back-end of the NFL have been caught. They persuaded the National Institutes of Health to end a sixteen million dollar project regarding players’ safety. These people tried to redirect money in a biased and illegal fashion.

The NFL's committee on brain injuries received the funding instead of an independent research group, Boston University. The study was to have been funded from a $30 million "unrestricted gift" that the league gave the NIH back in 2012.

This is problematic for several reasons.

At its core, the NFL was trying to manipulate what was supposedly unbiased information. There’s a reason the league doesn’t conduct its own research regarding player safety. If they did this research in house, who would keep them from brushing important health hazards under the rug? This is one of the reasons a system of checks and balances within the league is crucially important.

An article by the NY Times elaborates on this wishy washy behavior by exposing the NFL’s consistent efforts to ‘fudge the numbers’:

“For the last 13 years, the N.F.L. has stood by the research, which, the papers stated, was based on a full accounting of all concussions diagnosed by team physicians from 1996 through 2001. But confidential data obtained by The Times shows that more than 100 diagnosed concussions were omitted from the studies — including some severe injuries to stars like quarterbacks Steve Young and Troy Aikman. The committee then calculated the rates of concussions using the incomplete data, making them appear less frequent than they actually were.

After The Times asked the league about the missing diagnosed cases — more than 10 percent of the total — officials acknowledged that “the clubs were not required to submit their data and not every club did.” That should have been made clearer, the league said in a statement, adding that the missing cases were not part of an attempt “to alter or suppress the rate of concussions.””

This may leave some people with the biting question, “Don’t athletes expect an inherent risk when partaking in such a contact-oriented sport?” Which leaves professional athletes in a bit of a predicament as they can’t trust that their superiors are making their health a priority.

Information on preventing concussions in sports must be available to everyone. This insight needs to be accurate, not biased or skewed in any way. Is the desire for sports-related entertainment really an excuse to brush off the issues of players’ long-term health?

As die-hard sports fans, athletes, or just general members of society, it’s important to be cognizant of factors which may impact the wellbeing of superstars in the sports world. After all, they are just people pursuing their passion. With these various advancements in tech, we hope to see that future generations of athletes have accurate and reliable data about their health, making them the best players they can be.