When College Sports Meet Academic Research, Are Student Athletes at Risk?

Cutting-edge technology and athletics raise some ethical dilemmas

LSU Stadium
Louisiana State University is at the forefront in blending scientific research with their athletic programs.
Cmire4/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / September 21, 2019 11:23 am

Archetypes be damned, the days of “nerds versus jocks” are a long way in the past. There’s no better indicator of this than a story by Zach Schonbrun at The New York Times about an unexpected partnership on university campuses across the nation. What happens when universities researching physical activity meet the needs of an elite athletic program? 

It’s a fascinating look at how two seemingly disparate elements of university life have converged. But, much like many elements of college sports in 2019, it also opens the door to larger questions about compensation — in this case, athletes who find themselves the test subjects in a research study.

Schonbrun’s article highlights Louisiana State University as a place on the forefront of this approach. “L.S.U. players also regularly have their sweat analyzed for nutritional deficiencies. They swallow digestible electronic pills that monitor body temperature,” he writes. And it goes beyond nutrition: “This summer, a dozen athletes wore neuroimaging headgear for the first time to get a peek at how their brains function in simulated athletic conditions.”

A cautionary tale is raised by someone from a different aspect of university life: in this case, Boston College sports law professor Warren Zola. Zola points out that student athletes don’t have unions to represent them and (potentially) raise concerns over how this data is used. 

At at least one of the universities discussed in the article, the research aspects of playing on a team are optional. “[N]ot everyone agreed to participate and there were no repercussions,” Schonbrun writes of Louisiana State University. With the stakes this high, it’s nice to see one program taking an ethical route.

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