Sports teams, leagues, agents, players, and even players' parents are using an encrypted messaging service called Signal to secretly communicate, according to a new report. That may be one of the most concerning developments in sports in quite some time.

Teams across the NFL, NBA, and even college sports are using Signal to surreptitiously communicate with players, team officials, and more, Yahoo Sports is reporting, citing people who claim to have knowledge of their efforts.

With Signal's help, agents can negotiate on their clients' behalf outside of league tampering rules, according to the report. Team executives are using Signal to quietly communicate with players, coaches, and agents, and according to one unidentified source, the app is even being used by at least one college or university to facilitate communication between the administration and athletic staff. The reason? To avoid their discussions falling under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, according to the report.

Signal is no stranger to the world of business, journalism, and activism, but it's a relative newcomer in the world of sports.

Founded in 2010, Signal provides end-to-end encrypted messaging, which means recipients and senders can send notes or images to each other without anyone being able to intercept them and read what they're saying. (That's a feature Facebook-owned WhatsApp also provides.)

But Signal's secret sauce is in an automatic-delete feature that allows users to have their messages wiped from both their phones and those with whom they're communicating at set intervals. Once the messages are deleted, they can't be recovered. Add that to their encryption and trying to determine who people are communicating with over Signal--and what they're saying--is practically impossible.

Signal has been used by government and corporate whistleblowers to communicate with reporters and law enforcement officials. It can also be used for illegal purposes by criminals trying to communicate.

And now, it's apparently being used by people in the sports world to engage in, well, it's hard to say.

Technically, teams cannot communicate with players until they become free agents. At that point, communication is open and players can choose the team they want to play for. But recent developments suggest that teams in the NBA and perhaps even the NFL are communicating with expectant free agents before they actually become free agents, running afoul of league tampering rules.

Perhaps even more concerning is the content of the messages that we don't know anything about. If schools are communicating about NCAA athletes and having their messages deleted soon after, what are they saying? And what are the implications for the athletes and the institutions?

And what about the possibility of cheating? What if teams have spies using Signal to communicate to coaches or players tips about what the opposing team will do next? If those Signal messages are gone, we have no hope of finding the cheaters.

Today's sports leagues have of rules on top of rules, and by and large, they're in place to protect the players, the teams, the viability of the sport, and the fans who want to see a fair game.

Signal certainly has its place in protecting the privacy of those who need it. And in some ways, it can be an important tool for bringing people or even companies to justice. But if it's being used to shroud possible bad actors in sports, it has no place there.

Just as in the business world, sports leagues, teams, and executives need to think long and hard about how they use a piece of technology like Signal and if it hurts the integrity of the game.

Published on: Nov 7, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.