When The Workplace Is Everywhere, Or The Case Against The NBA's Biometrics Fetish

The trend in the NBA, as everywhere else, is towards more efficiency. This is good for business, but not so much for people who are just trying to do their job.
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In October of 2014, ESPN ran a story about teams gathering biometric data from players without the players union’s knowledge; unsurprisingly, the NBPA was not terribly pleased with this. The union seemed to approach this primarily as a privacy issue, which makes sense, but that erasure of privacy is not the only strange, sketchy, and otherwise unsettling thing about this practice. "I just refuse to believe that the purpose of monitoring on any long-term basis is the health of the employee,” bioethics attorney Alan C. Milestein said. “If the purpose is to predict performance, that's not a health care purpose. That's an economic purpose."

This economic purpose extends beyond teams’ desire for more and more specific biometric data. Biometric technologies do not exist in isolation, after all. They exist among and in concert with a host of other technologies, and belong to a system of knowledge and techniques dedicated to producing—through constant examination, monitoring, and evaluation—an increasingly more efficient, more consistent, more predictable, more productive NBA player. The players, and their union, are right to wonder whether becoming a lab rat could be folded into the job description.

The union is beginning to ask questions about the extent of this emphasis on biometric data, and the potential implementations of the information gathered. In pursuing answers, it is important to understand these technologies in context. Situating the practice of gathering biometric data within the historical context of this movement towards greater efficiency, allows for a clearer understanding of the state-of-the-art ways in which the average NBA player is exploited, and the power relations between the player, the league, the team, and the coach. It’s a set of relations, that once more closely examined, will become familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the high-efficiency, low-key oppressive environment of the day-to-day workplace.

As with many things in the modern NBA, the story starts (spiritually, if not necessarily chronologically) with Allen Iverson. Conflict defined Iverson’s entire NBA existence: conflict between the player and the league, conflict between the qualitative and the quantitative, and ultimately, conflict between Iverson’s life and his teams’ demands for institutional control of his talent. Iverson was ungovernable and unpredictable; this was the fun of watching him, the way he was always playing on the knife’s edge. The NBA was not so charmed.

As any boss would, the NBA saw Iverson as a potential threat to the league’s treasured brand and bottom line. It was this image anxiety—well, that and the Malice At The Palace—that precipitated the NBA’s more refined system of discipline. With the ostensible goal of improved public relations, the plan increased control over the players and their behavior: the way the players dressed, how they spoke to the media and referees, and how they interfaced with the public.

The goal, as usual in this sort of brand-related endeavor, was to create something smooth, seamless, and saleable; something so anesthetic as to eliminate any opportunity for offense. Players’ idiosyncrasies and individuality needed to be regulated, reformed, and refined. The result: more oversight, in all its corporate predictability and reliability, less clumsiness, confusion, difficulty, beauty—less of anything obviously human, and less subject to humanity's propensity for messiness and mistakes.

Iverson's play received a similar critique. A small circle of writers and stat-types wondered why Iverson didn’t pass more, why he didn’t shoot a better percentage, why his teams didn't win more. It was generally agreed that Iverson was a great player—it still is—but the uneven and idiosyncratic way in which he was great, and the ways in which it occasionally shaded into not-greatness, was confounding enough to make people ask new questions about greatness. Questions about what made “greatness” and whether this greatness could be better understood, and better quantified. It was not enough to describe the greatness, or experience or enjoy it. It needed to be measured in order to be verified.

The nascent analytical movement centered around creating basic measures of efficiency to better define what makes each team and each player most productive. Within this system of knowledge, basketball was broken down into smaller units to create more areas of definition—and more loci of control. Where once each decision could be described qualitatively as the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ play, decisions and players were now evaluated on a scale of efficiency with infinite gradations and possibilities. The spectre of the unreached optimum lorded over each player, always demanding more efficient decisions, more productive shots, more calculated drives, more accurate passes.

As the movement developed, the league and its teams (to varying degrees), began to see the usefulness of this. Correction and improvement could only come through better monitoring and more comprehensive and detailed understanding of the player’s movements, gestures, and decisions. To this end, the league invested in systems of technology to increase the scope and depth of information. The new video-tracking data serves as perhaps the ideal on-court monitoring system, as it captures every infinitesimal moment and allows for even more refined control over player movements. Correction becomes infinitely more specific.

The goal, for teams, is that every minute of every game become more productive, and contain less waste.  The drive for optimal exhaustion of time will persist unsatisfied as teams develop more invasive methods of monitoring. It is not difficult to imagine players wearing in-game tracking devices that subject them to constant evaluation through a model much like the one developed by the Toronto Raptors. Coaches would have real-time feedback on the efficiency of their players’ every movement and decision, and could (wait for it) more efficiently exert control.

In hopes of optimizing physical performance, teams have begun to collect more detailed biological data. This is presented to the players and the public in its most flattering light, which is as a movement towards improved player health. And while that’s true enough, it’s not the end of it: a team cares only about the health of a player’s body insofar as it can remain a productive body, and the team finally seeks to gain more information about the body only to improve its performance in labor.

This new information requires players to practice and train a certain way to maximize their bodies’ productivity. As a result, the workday lengthens, and the workplace is everywhere. The offseason requires longer hours and more intense training to ensure better performance; the team now knows about what a player is eating, how they’re training, how much they’re sleeping. The next step, naturally, is mandating it, in the interest of best practices and productivity. Somewhere in here we confront a maxim regularly espoused by a good friend of mine: that capitalism can turn even the most wonderful activity into the most miserable job.

Everyone who works for a living knows how this goes. Eventually the techniques of power disappear from view and appear, instead, in the form of self-discipline and individual responsibility. The goal of the institution is to produce a subject who welcomes the increasing demands. Under this system, each player’s actions speak to his character rather than the forces being used on or against him. Ultimately, the rules and techniques produce your great work rather than the other way around. You are simply a vehicle of efficiency, productivity; in fact, your agency, your life, are only recognized in your potential to impede efficiency, to throw the whole system off. The last thing that is left up to you is the opportunity to fail in your duties.

However terrifying or omnipotent these powers seem, in reality the current NBA player remains, to varying degrees, in direct resistance to these techniques. In other words, players will never fully be the productive subjects these technologies intend to create. While Iverson and the players have in many ways lost the war against the omnipresent workplace—and they have plenty of company in that—their existence and their personalities outlive any set of institutional rules or controls. The NBA is a business, but basketball is more like art, and “talkin’ bout practice” will always resonate more than any dress code.

And it’s in the space between control and the actual human players themselves that we find the aspects of the league worth loving—the uncontrollable force of Russell Westbrook, the undefinable creativity of Chris Paul, the improbable beauty of Marc Gasol’s game, the J.R. Smithiness of J.R. Smith. It is in the resistance, in the margins, where basketball breathes, and inspires.

The players’ union should make demands to preserve the space to breathe and room to live. The union is correct to question teams’ collection of biometric data. The players are right to want to exist as more than what their bodies can produce for the benefit of the league. And we, as fans, would do well to recognize players not just as productive bodies but as living bodies—as human as any the rest of us—with a complex set of needs and desires often left unsatisfied by a false world.


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