Human trafficking is known as the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labor and/or sexual exploitation. According to the U.N.-backed International Labor Organization (ILO) globally it is estimated that up to 40 million people today are affected by this industry. In a 2014 ILO report, human trafficking earns a profit of roughly $150 billion a year for traffickers with 66% of the global profits coming from sexual exploitation. According to ILO and the nonprofit Polaris Project, the sex and labor trafficking industry is second only to drug trafficking as the world’s largest criminal industry.
In 2019 alone, per the Institute for Sport and Social Justice’s “Shut Out Trafficking” program, there were 2,907 individuals arrested, suspected or charged with human trafficking activities in the United States. More than 400 people over 18 years of age were rescued from being trafficked and nearly 115 children under age 18 were freed. There were 83 new laws passed and 483 community-based initiatives to fight human trafficking.
The magnitude is often dramatically increased leading up to and during large sporting and entertainment events. For example, according to reporting by ESPN’s E:60, more than 1,000 people have died in Qatar as a result of labor trafficking (and associated poor/illegal working conditions) to build new facilities for the 2022 World Cup.
Now, human trafficking is a focus of the upcoming Super Bowl in Miami.
According to a report by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, Florida ranks third nationwide in human trafficking cases, and Miami-Dade County is the biggest trafficking hub in the state. The Super Bowl generates millions of dollars every year. And one of the biggest recipients of this massive revenue is the host city. According to a Rockport Analytics study after the 2018 Super Bowl LII, the net economic impact to the Minneapolis-St. Paul economy was an estimated $400 million. Based on comprehensive analysis of visitor expenditures, host committee and NFL operations, reported tax collections, media expenditures and other ancillary economic activities, this estimated economic impact included 5,490 jobs supported, $273 million in paid wages and $32.4 million in state and local tax revenues.
According to human trafficking data compiled by the Institute for Sport and Social Justice’s “Shut Out Trafficking” program, there’s consistently a spike of reported incidents in the U.S. around January and February (when the Super Bowl takes place). In January 2019, there were approximately 450 reported incidents, with a jump to approximately 540 in February. It dropped down to 140 incidents in March 2019.
In recent years, the increased visitors in host cities tend to encourage the criminal activities of human trafficking and sex trafficking. It is often found that criminally organized sex rings will travel from one location to another to meet the demand of large sporting events. And, according to the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, these types of large sporting events can lead to a culture of partying, drinking, and, too often, engaging in paid sex activities.
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In 2020, there is an increase in community and law enforcement initiatives to combat the number of incidents being reported around the Super Bowl. One of the most solid first lines of defense for law enforcement has been training and relying on staff within hospitality industries such as hotels, restaurants, massage parlors and adult entertainment clubs to sight and report any signs of trafficking.
The Miami hotel industry hosted an anti-trafficking summit at the Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach in early January 2020. Hospitality industry staffers were trained to spot the signs of human trafficking. While the city and its law enforcement officials will remain on high alert during the lead up to Super Bowl and throughout the month of February, the first line of defense will continue to be the hospitality industry and its staff.
In addition to law enforcement’s efforts, many anti-trafficking organizations have taken matters into their own hands. Since the 2011, Theresa Flores, the founder of Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution (S.O.A.P.) and a survivor of sex trafficking, and her Ohio-based foundation have been active with holding outreach programs and opportunities during Super Bowls. The goal of S.O.A.P is to distribute small bars of soap to hotel rooms, which display a message to human trafficking victims along with the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
In 2019, such efforts from law enforcement and organizations like S.O.A.P. made a difference in the rescuing of 16 minors and 34 adults before and during Super Bowl LIII.
But the efforts don’t just stop at law enforcement and local organizations. Since 2014, “It’s a Penalty” has been the primary global ad campaign focused on using the power of sports to address human trafficking issues related to major sporting events including the Super Bowl. NFL players Andy Dalton, Aaron Rodgers, Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill, Charles Harris, Jerome Baker and Ben Watson all support the campaign. All seven players have lent their voices to a 30-second campaign film which could be seen at Miami airports in January, inflight on all British Airways and American Airlines planes during January and beginning in February, as well as in partnership with hotels, supported by the Super Bowl Host Committee and Uber among others. These are all examples of how the people directly involved in a sport should be using their platform to recognize and help fight against an issue that is occurring around them.
But the Super Bowl is hardly alone as a sporting event that calls for increased precautions against human trafficking.
Just a few months after the 2019 Super Bowl, officials arrested 58 people in a sex trafficking sting operation during the NCAA Men’s Tournament Final Four in Minneapolis. This included 47 people being charged for felony solicitation of a minor, and 11 people for sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution. As a result of the sting, 28 people including one minor were rescued. The five-day operation involved undercover agents and investigators who chatted with potential sex buyers over social media — another reminder of just how far technology has taken us.
In July 2019, the MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland was also thought to be a target for human trafficking. Similar to the preparation that takes place in host cities of the Super Bowl, Cleveland hotels trained their staffs to spot the signs of human trafficking during this busy time for the city.
Within MLB, the efforts don’t stop there. Many MLB players have individually supported national efforts to combat human trafficking. In February 2019, MLB and the MLB Players Association announced a commitment of $500,000 through 2021 to nonprofit organizations focused on education and programming to stop human trafficking. There will be support intended for survivors as well as Strike Out Slavery, the initiative led by three-time National League MVP and 10-time All-Star Albert Pujols and his wife Deidre. In the 2019 offseason, Dodgers’ player Clayton Kershaw visited the Dominican Republic with his wife Ellen and the International Justice Mission to join the fight against human trafficking.
The Masters Tournament is also one of the largest sporting events that can attract human trafficking. In 2019, the city of Augusta, Georgia, was just as prepared to combat and fight human trafficking as they were for the influx of golf fans into their city. As a sporting event that remains in the same city every year, the city and event organizers have had the chance to strengthen their preventative measures. Praying Pelicans, an Augusta-based organization, engaged in their annual awareness and prevention initiative to help prevent human trafficking during the Masters. Similar to S.O.A.P., the organization passed out flowers with the National Human Trafficking Hotline for victims or anyone who spotted a potential case of someone being trafficked. Even small measures like these can make a difference.
The Kentucky Derby is another sporting event which is also a site for human trafficking. During the 2019 events, officers arrested four men on counts of human trafficking. The arrest led to the rescue of 13 women in the successful execution of the operation. The operation used an undercover police officer posing as a 15-year-old girl who posted an online sex ad. This operation also focused on the victims themselves, who were all offered the opportunity to speak with advocates and escape the industry.
In this new decade, sporting communities need to do all that they can to combat human trafficking. January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the number of community initiatives in the U.S. have multiplied, but human trafficking still exists and remains a large problem at these sporting events. It’s crucial that now, with every large sporting event, we need to continue to provide any and all efforts possible to stop this crime against humanity.
Mallika Mali made significant contributions to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of social justice in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick.