Heaslip sticks to his guns on players’ rights to privacy
Former Ireland stalwart highlights need for players to control their individual data
Jamie Heaslip: “Chinese whispers came into play post-injury a year ago. All sorts of things were said and some of them blatant lies.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Images of the Wild West were a common theme running through the narrative of Jamie Heaslip yesterday. The frontiers of data protection and rugby agents might be first¨-world issues. But the former Irish captain has been warming to them.
“You only have to look at Facebook. [The last] two days,” he says referring to the scandal that has hit Cambridge Analytica, the company that harvested the data of millions of people and used it to target certain voters in the last US election.
Heaslip has been a pioneer in this town. Since he suffered a career-ending back injury in 2017 he has looked the media in the eye on countless occasions and wearily shaken his head. The information about his back is his alone. The details of his prognosis are his alone. They are not for public consumption. His demeanour has largely been a thankless ‘shutters down’. But he has made his point.
“Data in general, lads,” he emphasises. “I’m not talking about medical records. I’m talking across the board. I think people are unaware about how important it is for them to control their data.
“As a player . . . if you are in your office and your paper has a doctor. You have a problem. You go to him. You talk to him. That’s your relationship. That is not for anyone else to know.”
Heaslip concedes that, as a high-profile athlete, the state of his fitness and health is something the public might be interested in, although, it is important to distinguish his injuries are not in the public interest. His ability to perform is of concern to his club Leinster and Ireland and if he had wished to leave Leinster, his health would be of interest to other clubs. But there is a line.
“I understand we are in a public forum here. You have got to feed the beast a little bit. I understand that,” he says. “At the same time you have to know where the line is and sometimes players don’t know where the line is.
“Take my example. Chinese whispers came into play post-injury a year ago. All sorts of things were said and some of them blatant lies. And they were said in public forums. I didn’t tell anyone what was wrong with me. That’s why I made a conscious choice. That’s why I stuck to my guns on it. It is up to each individual player. But they’ve got to know what their rights are.”
The issue is even broader in sweep. Information has become power and has become monetised as professional athletes now find themselves in the middle of an ever-changing landscape. May 2018 will see the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, which will strengthen European citizens’ right to data privacy.
It affects everyone, particularly in a rugby environment that is constantly measured by GPS monitors worn by players in matches and training. Moods are checked, medical history detailed.
How fast do they run? How many miles do they complete? What does the sleep monitor say? How much time do they spend on the ground? What is the injury profile, that is, the medical record? Who owns that information and who should be allowed gain from it? The player? The club? The potential investor?
“We’ve got to think about this a lot more,” he warns. “It’s evolving lads. But that’s my view, third parties, what protocols and policies they have in place. You’ve got to remember it’s a team.”
But his silence on the injury came back to bite him. The less information he gave out, the more people began to speculate. Rumours became facts. Before he knew it the state of the Heaslip back was a major source of disinformation.
Perversely, the less he said, the more other people did. Commentators were filling the vacuum, made a living from it.
Heaslip was never thinking of leaving Leinster and as member of the International Rugby Players highlighted Ireland’s relatively benign player loading regime compared to France or Britain. But players do leave. It could have caused problems in another scenario.
“It can be important when you are switching clubs. Know what I mean?” he says. “Take an injury and it gets thrown into the public forum and people are guessing what it is and a club reads this. Then they already have that presumption on a player’s injury profile without knowing the player. Not based on fact.
“Your medical data is up to you and your doctor. I get it because you do need to let people know about certain injuries. Take concussion for example. I’m not saying hide anything. I’m not saying that at all.
“People have to know what their rights are. It [professional rugby] is still a work place.”