As the National Football League (NFL) races toward a resumption of football in America on Thursday, the league’s pandemic contact-tracing technology of choice is in for a trial by fire.
Near the peak of the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak this summer, the NFL and the NFLPA—the league’s player association—announced that their joint coronavirus task force had contracted with Kinexon, a German company, for a “league-wide order of proximity recording devices,” as ESPN reported.
The NFL planned to use up to 2,000 wrist-mounted Kinexon SafeTag devices—the one publicly disclosed contact tracing technology tied to the restart—that players and staff would wear during practice sessions, games, and when traveling together. The watch-like devices blink and flash when the user gets closer than six feet to someone wearing another device, and records the interaction. The system, which is already reportedly in use by the NBA and a basketball league in Germany, could also theoretically allow officials to trace someone’s contacts within the NFL, should they fall sick with COVID-19.
“The main advantage of digital exposure notifications is that you don’t have to rely on people’s memory of who they were talking to, which subway they took, or where they were sitting in a restaurant,” said Omid Sadjadi, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which recently tested several contact-tracing systems based on cellphones. “You also don’t need to rely on their perception of distance and time.”
Many professional sports leagues in America, including the NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLS, have placed their teams in physical “bubbles” to resume play under the pandemic. These secure locations—with hotels and sporting venues in close proximity, and lots of testing—have largely been successful in avoiding outbreaks
In contrast, Major League Baseball attempted a “virtual bubble” where players were free to travel but agreed to follow distancing rules in their personal lives. Multiple games have had to be postponed because of positive coronavirus tests on at least seven baseball teams, though the pace of COVID-19 trouble has slowed considerably in recent weeks.
Crucially, while some infections have been linked to players’ social activities, there have been no reported cases of an infected baseball player spreading the virus to another team during an actual game, according to The Wall Street Journal. So when the FCC decided on Tuesday not to allow some SafeTag devices to be used in buses, planes, hotels, restaurants, or anywhere outside NFL stadiums, it raised questions about how, exactly, the technology would be effective at preventing COVID-19-related delays and postponement of games.
The NFL had planned to start using the Kinexon technology as soon as mid-August, an application with the FCC reviewed by The Daily Beast shows. “The system works with no infrastructure and has [the] capability with associated software to allow reliable contact tracing, should that be necessary,” reads an NFL letter to the FCC. “The reason why [this application] is necessary (and urgently so, given that the football season is imminent) is that the devices operate at 6.5 GHz.”
The problem is that the NFL already uses another wireless microwave system operating at the same radio frequency to track players during football games. Testing indicated that the two systems could interfere with each other. “Player tracking during football games is a benefit for television viewers that viewers have come to expect and rely on,” wrote the NFL.
The FCC worried that the NFL’s choice of an alternate frequency could potentially cause harmful interference to communications infrastructure over “a vast geographic area including all [of the] US continent.” The NFL maintained that any interference risk from the modified, low-power, short-range devices was negligible.
On Tuesday night, about two days before the kick-off of the season’s first game, the FCC suddenly granted the NFL’s request—with the proviso that the modified sensors could only be used inside stadiums, and only for the duration of this football season.
The NFL did not respond to requests for comment about contact tracing technologies or systems that might also be in place outside stadiums. Kinexon declined to comment on the NFL project, citing non-disclosure agreements. One possible scenario is that the NFL is using unmodified SafeTag devices—which would not require FCC approval—to help protect players and staff at NFL facilities, at hotels and restaurants, and during travel. However, this would mean players and other personnel having to swap between different SafeTag devices on game days.
A fact-sheet issued by the NFL states: “Contact tracing—and the league’s use of proximity recording devices to perform that tracing—is just one component of the comprehensive effort to mitigate risk. Other aspects of this effort include the overhaul of club facilities to accommodate physical distancing, around-the-clock cleaning and disinfection, a robust testing and screening program, and behavior-based changes, like virtual meetings, mask-wearing, and avoiding large gatherings.”
The sheet states that players and staff would also have to return their SafeTags when leaving NFL facilities each day, or after traveling. Short of a second contact-tracing system, the approach might serve to prevent the NFL from tracking any COVID-19 exposures that happen at night or when players are not working. “[Players] are safe in the stadiums in the sense that if someone was sick, they will get to know,” said Sadjadi. “But what happens when they go out? They could get a false sense of security.”
Indeed, while the NFL has touted a microscopic positivity rate—a report from NFL.com on Sept. 1 pointed to just 10 cases among nearly 60,000 tests of players and other personnel—it remains to be seen how its technology will fare in the real world.
“There’s value in the NFL knowing who was in close proximity to whom if somebody tests positive,” said Janet Baseman, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. “But they’re not taking a bubble approach the way that the NBA did, which was a much greater attempt to control everybody’s behavior on and off the court. I'm sure they’re talking to people about how to keep risky behaviors to a minimum, but the reality is, with the technology they've chosen, it doesn’t work outside of when everyone’s wearing them at work.”