June 15, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

NFL used tracking tags to keep COVID from derailing season

The Minnesota Vikings increased their game-day buses from five to 11, affording their players plenty of room for social distancing. The Baltimore Ravens chartered a second airplane, giving them 600 seats for a traveling party of 120. The Rams reconfigured their SoFi Stadium locker room so that, for instance, no two receivers dress next to each other.

The NFL will play its final game of the season Sunday when the Kansas City Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. It’s a finish line many people thought unreachable amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially because the league was operating outside of a bubble. But pro football persisted, making changes both simple and sophisticated to prevent a crippling spread of the virus.

Whereas the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball played compressed and abbreviated seasons, the NFL played a full schedule in the traditional 17 weeks, followed by an uninterrupted slate of postseason games. There were plenty of hiccups, including coronavirus outbreaks on multiple teams, but not one of the 256 games was canceled.

There were virus flareups with the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns. The Denver Broncos were forced to play a game with a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback —all four quarterbacks were on the COVID list — and the San Francisco 49ers were temporarily relocated to Arizona because of a coronavirus crackdown in Santa Clara County.

The NFL conducted 954,830 tests for the virus on more than 7,000 people a week during the regular season, with 724 confirmed positive cases. Even as the coronavirus numbers were climbing across the nation in December, the positive tests in the NFL were on a downward trend.

The league’s coronavirus positivity rate through the season was 0.08%, considerably lower than that of the nation, which has been in the range of 5%-13% depending on the time of year and region.

“We don’t think there was a safer place to be than in NFL facilities this year,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “We never doubted that for a second.”

As the axiom goes, football is a game of inches. But the NFL has been most focused on keeping everyone at least six feet apart. To that end, everyone in the league — players, coaches and other employees — was required to wear a domino-sized electronic device at work, one that records the proximity and duration of contact between users. At his annual Super Bowl news conference Thursday, Goodell wore one of the devices like a watch.

A Tampa Bay Buccaneers employee holds a team helmet while wearing one of the “SafeTags” used for coronavirus contact tracing by NFL teams this season.

(Tyler Kaufman / Associated Press)

The discreet plastic “SafeTags” were developed by a German company called Kinexon, which previously made chips that tracked the location or movement of athletes on the field. Early in the pandemic, the company pivoted and reprogrammed its wearables to simply record contact between users.

That appealed to the NFL, which was scrambling to build a system of contact tracing that wasn’t entirely reliant on people’s recall and their willingness to share information.

“We started looking everywhere for anything on the market, but this was very early,” said Michelle McKenna, the NFL’s chief information officer. “The things that were coming out initially were more app-based, and they were geolocational. They were phone-based, and none of that was going to work for us.

“If you’ve walked around a city with Google Maps on, you know how easily it can get confused about exactly where you are. So we knew that wouldn’t be accurate enough.”

The Kinexon chips communicate with one another with centimeter-accurate precision, and are worn on wristbands, dangle from lanyards, and, with some players, are tucked into tiny pockets sewn into jerseys.

“I’ll just slip it into my sock and go about my day,” Minnesota Vikings guard Dakota Dozier said during the regular season. “When I change back into my clothes, I’ve got to remember to turn it in.”

The use of wearable chips to measure player performance is nothing new. For several years, the NFL has affixed those to shoulder pads to collect data on the speed of players, the precision of pass routes and the like. But the Kinexon devices, developed during the pandemic, are different. They do not track the user’s location, only who that person has been in contact with and for how long. Only designated medical officials have access to that information.

“Kinexon is a key tool in contact tracing, and contact tracing is one of our most powerful ways to prevent spread,” said Dr. Christina Mack, an epidemiologist for IQVIA, an NFL partner in health research and technology, and now in contact tracing.

The wearable chips are constantly collecting data, measuring when people come in contact with each other and for how long. If one of those people tests positive, that triggers a full download of every chip of the team in question and determines who had close contact with that infected person within 24 hours before, and 24 hours after, that positive test.

In football terms, the goal was to make an interception — to identify and contain the infected individual before the virus could spread.

“We know there are cases in the community, and the individuals in our ecosystem live in that community,” Mack said. “So the idea is, if there’s a positive case, it’s one and no more than that.”

Arizona Cardinals offensive assistant Don Shumpert wears an Kinexon health tracking device.

Arizona Cardinals offensive assistant Don Shumpert wears an Kinexon health tracking device before a game against the Dallas Cowboys in October.

(Brandon Wade / Associated Press)

Along the way, the league analyzed the chip data on an ongoing basis to refine its protocols and find new ways to achieve effective distancing. For instance, teams were able to reduce close contacts by 50% or more by adding more buses, or even chartering an additional plane.

Early in the season, data from the devices revealed a troubling trend. When some teams were on the road, they tended to have a spike in close contacts on Saturday afternoons. Turns out, that’s when players were checking into their hotel. To rectify that, teams sent players into lobbies in small groups, and issued room keys at tables rather than having players wait in lines. The close-contact numbers declined sharply.

One club was registering an abnormal number of close contacts around meal times, prompting the team owner, president, and general manager to get together and examine everything they were doing in their facility. They discovered their cafeteria tables were separated by four feet, not six, and their numbers went down when they pushed those tables apart.

That became a moot point as the season went on and coronavirus numbers climbed across the country, because the NFL implemented its intensive protocols, banning players from gathering in lunchrooms, locker rooms, or inside meeting rooms.

Still, the league studied the data with granular precision, and teams who typically compete on every front began to help each other.

“We’ve shown clubs where they’ve ranked in terms of close contacts on travel days or close contacts in the facilities,” said Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president overseeing health and safety. “When clubs have been outside the normal range, or even those who were in the normal range and wanted to get lower, we looked at strategies for clubs to share.”

Everyone at every NFL team facility, as well as league headquarters, is assigned a specific tag or multiple tags that are charged overnight. Coaches, famous for staying at the facilities until the wee hours, have been known to burn through multiple chip batteries in a day.

The Rams assigned, on average, four tags to each player: ones to be used at the team’s facility, on the road, embedded in their pads, and an extra set to swap out because of battery life.

“It’s always really funny,” said Kassandra Garcia, an analyst in football administration for the team. “We do inventory of our Kinexons, and when you start to see some of the players and coaches who have upwards of six or seven of them, you’re like, `OK, you’ve got to go check your car, go into your locker. You’ve got to bring some of these back. Help me help you, before we have to start paying for some more.’”

The tags provide real-time physical distancing warning by flashing a red light when wearers get too close to each other, and can be configured to emit an audible alarm if the close contact lasts too long.

“Some clubs were very serious about it early on,” the NFL’s McKenna said. “They wanted the audible alerts. They didn’t care if it got annoying. And there were some that said, `No, just put the lights on.’ They just wanted to see the light go from blinking blue to blinking red, when red means you’re within a certain distance of someone.”

McKenna conceded the act of wearing the devices takes some getting used to.

“Before we started wearing them in the league office, I for one, along with many others, we’d get frustrated when we’d see players that weren’t wearing them,” she said. “`Why aren’t they wearing them? We’ve just got to tell them to wear them.’ Then, when all of a sudden we had to start wearing them, you realize it’s an interesting feeling.

“It feels like Big Brother is watching, even though we’re not. We’re really only helping protect each other, but it has a weird feeling, coming in and putting a device on yourself.

“It’s a new way of thinking.”