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Beyond the gadgets – regulatory and legal considerations for wearable technology in sports

Photo source : Catapult Sports

Wearable Technology in sports is a relatively recent development. It was used for the first time in live sports beginning in 2009. It began with a European soccer club tracking the overall workload of players during games. This development allowed coaches the real-time ability of monitoring biometrics.  Since then, wearable technology has evolved from biometric monitoring to the inclusion of perceptual and psychological aspects of sports.  

Through the utilization of these products, the ability to reduce potential injuries related to concussions, brain trauma, exhaustion, injured muscles, tendons, and ligaments in addition to various illnesses is greatly increased.  In short, the idea behind wearable technology is that certain technologies can help keep athletes safe and healthy.

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This theory has been tested and proven successful. One example can be illustrated by the Toronto Raptors. In 2012, the Raptors had the most injuries in the NBA.  Shortly thereafter, they implemented wearable devices and began monitoring soft tissue.  As a result, in 2014, the Raptors had the least injuries in the NBA. The immediate foregoing is just one of the few advantages of adopting the practice.

Back in the 2015/2016 football season when Leicester City Football club won the league, for the first time in 100 years, football teams in the league were allowed to use wearable devices during matches for the first time.


LEICESTER, ENGLAND – MAY 07: Captain Wes Morgan, owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, his son Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha and players celebrate the season champions with the Premier League Trophy after the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Everton at The King Power Stadium on May 7, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images) Photo Source – Daily Mail UK

Unbeknownst to most viewers, fans and even rival teams, certain players wore tracking devices that recorded every metre they ran, every turn they made and how fast they accelerated. This data was processed and stored so it could be compared with previous matches and training sessions. Coaches have been able to track their players’ physical conditions and performances and ultimately, make important tactical in-game decisions during trainings and matches.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of innovation in its wake not only in the pharmaceutical industry but in sports as well. By the end of February 2020, a lot of countries had imposed lockdowns in some cities.  By Friday, March 13, 2020, the Italian Serie A, the German Bundesliga, the French Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie had all suspended their respective leagues.  

The Premier league was eventually forced to do the inevitable by the end of March 2020 after postponing a number of games and ultimately suspended the games in the Premier League till April 3rd, 2020. With Covid-19 hot on the heels of sports and sports events, the next challenge was how to ensure the playing staff of teams in the major football leagues and even the NBA maintained an acceptable level of fitness and at the same time, comply with the safety protocols in the league. One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring physical distance between teammates in training in what is a high intensity, contact sport.

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Newcastle United is one of more than 50 sports teams across the world using “Proximity Report”, from sports technology company, Catapult Sports. The feature generates reports detailing how long a player has spent in close proximity with teammates. Should a player test positive for COVID-19, the club will know which players he has been in contact with, for how long, and even during which specific training drill or exercise.

“Teams can upload their planned training schedules and immediately understand the volume of contact players will undertake during that training session,” Will Lopes, CEO of Australia-based Catapult, said.  This development has unsurprisingly, generated a raft of data for not only the teams but for statisticians and sports scientists.

Newcastle United (pictured training before the coronavirus pandemic) is using wearable technology from Catapult to measure physical distancing ahead of the Premier League’s return. (Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images) NEWCASTLE UNITED VIA GETTY IMAGES. Photo Source – Forbes

Wearable technology is infiltrating the sports world in astronomical proportions and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Thus, the major question for sports administrators, league bodies, businesspeople, legal scholars, lawmakers, fans and other sport stakeholders is:

Is wearable technology the ‘new normal’ in sports? Are there legal considerations underpinning this practice?

Put differently, are there legal implications of this practice that sports teams and league bodies need to be aware of in adopting this new phenomenon? What is the implication for athletes’ individual rights and the demands of fair competition?

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