Alabama Questioned for Giving Athletes Apple Watches

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban boasted of his team's use of Apple Watches to maintain player wellbeing during the social distancing brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, but some have questioned whether distribution of the devices creates an unfair advantage.

“Hopefully this will help us with some injury prevention and help us be able to perform better when the time comes,” Saban said during a Thursday teleconference with reporters. Referring to his newly hired directors of performance and performance science, Saban added, “They were very instrumental with setting up this whole program of what we’re doing for the players in terms of Apple Watches for their workouts, apps on their phones, weight-training programs. We had an issue of some players not having a place to work out because some high schools are closed. So we put them on band workout programs.

“They’ve done a really, really good job of managing it to this point and the players have done a good job responding to it.”

In the days since those statements, some have questioned whether Alabama's use of the watches violates NCAA guidelines. "I don't know, maybe [Alabama] got a different interpretation or something," Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney said during a Friday conference call, per ESPN's Mark Schlabach. "There are a lot of different interpretations out there right now."

An Alabama spokesman told ESPN on Friday that only director of sports medicine Jeff Allen is viewing information collected by the players' Apple watches, including sleeping patterns, heart rates during workouts and other health-related data.

Matt Self, Alabama's senior associate athletics director for compliance, said in a statement: "The SEC is aware that Alabama provided Apple Watches to some of our student-athletes. We are in constant communication with the SEC discussing the appropriate manner in which to utilize these and any other resources to provide for the health and well-being of our student-athletes during this crisis."

That statement borrowed directly from the NCAA's own language on the subject of institutional interaction with student-athletes during the pandemic, as it appeared in the “NCAA Division 1 COVID-19 Question and Answer Guide," released Wednesday. As reported by USA Today, on any matter that “involves assisting a student-athlete with a healthy, safety or well-being concern,” the NCAA guidance encourages schools to be comfortable “applying the greatest degree of flexibility in interpreting the application of the legislation.”

USA Today's Dan Wolken writes that "other officials around college athletics, who requested anonymity, questioned that interpretation on multiple levels, suggesting that not only is Alabama violating the spirit of the rule, but that sending Apple watches to players who didn’t have them is a clear end-around of the NCAA’s more flexible approach to what schools can provide during this unprecedented situation." 

Other conferences are attempting to set rules of engagement, as well. The Big 12 told its schools that it could only send items like nutritional supplements and light training devices to players, while teams from other leagues are sending boxed meals to players who were on university meal plans, according to ESPN.

"The one thing that has me and other coaches in the Big 12 a little upset and a little confused is the ability to send your players workout equipment and tracking devices," Herman said, as reported by ESPN. "They've really restricted that moving forward, but yet other conferences have had two weeks of shipping this stuff out to their players. Are they going to make those players send it back? We've got to figure out how to level the playing field as far as that's concerned."

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