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Call it Dr. App. Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting new uses in, and on, the field, literally, such as predicting, and helping prevent, sports injuries. For professional athletes, whose bodies and physical capabilities are essential to their business, their performance, and their marketing, the promise of big data and analytics are nearly irresistible. If AI and data analytics can help them prevent injuries, extend their careers, and ensure their consistent performance, why wouldn’t they adopt the latest and greatest tech-enabled options? 

The implementation of this notion varies from app to app. Mustard, a baseball app, allows users (professional or otherwise) to upload videos, which the app compares against videos of professional players. The comparison then suggests ways for the users to adjust their swings or throws, to play more efficiently and safely. Another app, called 4D Motion, is for figure skaters. They strap a small device to their hip to track their movement, as well as test for signs of fatigue, which could lead to injury. The soccer app Zone7 uses sensors to collect data about players’ body positions and movement, which in turn informs the training regimens it recommends, as well as its suggestions for when it is time to rest. The Liverpool Football Club in the United Kingdom has credited Zone7 with reducing its players’ injuries by one-third.

Another option is to rely on AI to scout new superstar athletes. For example, SkillCorner runs broadcasts of soccer matches, played throughout the world, through an algorithm that tracks each player’s location and speed. Thus, general managers looking to poach an underrecognized talent from another team can identify superstars in the making.

Despite these remarkable contributions and benefits, each of the apps also has its own unique limitations. Few of them are able to maintain continuous tracking of individual athletes over the course of their entire careers. Furthermore, none of them have means to measure the psychological and emotional factors that affect athletes’ performance, at least not yet.

In addition, there raise salient and sensitive privacy concerns, along with pressing questions about who owns individual athletes’ performance data. If a team collects such data from all its players, then aggregates them to design the starting lineup for the next game, should the athletes who provide the valuable input be compensated? Do players have the right to control how their performance data get used or shared?

Currently, in the United States at least, no regulations exist regarding whether, when, and how teams and other companies can capture and use player training data. The White House has indicated intentions to develop recommendations for rules that would govern AI and the use of private data, but finding the right balance will be difficult. Any regulations would need to allow the advances technologies to help people, without ignoring their individual privacy rights.

In that sense, even when they are applied internationally, these apps seem uniquely American. What’s more all-American than a mashup of sports and regulations? Let’s play ball!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can AI prevent sports injuries?
  2. Are there downsides to these apps?
  3. How do you think AI will be used in the future, in sports?

Source: Eric Niiler, “How AI Could Help Predict—and Avoid—Sports Injuries, Boost Performance,” The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2022; John McCormick, “How AI Helps Teams Prevent Sports Injuries,” The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019; Alberto Rizzoli, “7 Game-Changing AI Applications in the Sports Industry,” V7, May 26, 2022