Alabama's use of Apple watches to track football players sets off rules debate

Dan Wolken USA TODAY

When Alabama coach Nick Saban revealed on a conference call with reporters Thursday that his school had sent Apple watches to players to provide monitoring capability while they working out are at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it set off a frenzy in compliance offices around the country to determine whether Alabama had broken a rule or merely found a loophole that others could also exploit.

According to one person who had input into the NCAA’s ever-evolving guide into the dos-and-don’ts of this unprecedented period, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak for the NCAA, Alabama is flatly breaking the rules.

Others are unsure and spent Friday scrambling to get clarification. Alabama’s compliance director put out a statement on Thursday indicating that the school was “in constant communication with the SEC discussing the appropriate manner in which to utilize these and other resources to provide for the health and well-being of our student-athletes during this crisis."

NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn did not provide a comment, and the SEC did not immediately respond on Friday afternoon.

But if nothing else, Alabama’s use of the Apple watches roiled the industry Friday and highlighted how the NCAA’s attempt to answer myriad questions about how schools should proceed with this offseason have spawned even more questions in certain cases.

In a document released to schools on Wednesday titled “NCAA Division 1 COVID-19 Question and Answer Guide," the NCAA said schools can distribute workouts to student-athletes for voluntary use but that staff members “may not supervise or conduct such workouts” and that athletes “may not report voluntary athletically related activities to institutional coaches or staff members.”

In his conference call, Saban said that his new strength and conditioning coaches David Ballou and Matt Rhea were “very instrumental in setting up this whole program of what we’re doing with the players in terms of Apple watches for their workouts and apps on their phones for weight training programs.”

Taken at face value, that statement would appear to be in direct conflict with the NCAA’s rule as written. The Athletic, however, reported that the data from the watches was only being reviewed by Jeff Allen, the head of sports medicine for the football program, and was “limited in scope to sleep patterns and activity level” and isn’t being used to oversee workouts.

But 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.

The NCAA’s guidance on what schools are allowed to send players provides a significant amount of latitude, including boxed food delivery services or gift cards so that athletes who can’t access campus can eat.

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.”

In other words, Alabama’s statement citing “resources to provide for the health and well-being of our student athletes” was no accident. Still, others around the country are crying foul over that principle applying to an Apple watch.

Echoing many of his colleagues, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said on a conference call with reporters Friday that he was under the impression that tracking devices weren’t allowed at this time.

“I don’t know, maybe (Alabama) got a different interpretation or something,” Swinney said. “There are a lot of different interpretations out there right now.”