Human trafficking is the Super Bowl of suffering

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There has been speculation for many years about the staging of the Super Bowl as a magnet for increased sex trafficking. As fans gather in the San Francisco Bay Area this week, local authorities, as they have been doing for the past several years at respective Super Bowls, have marshalled resources to try to prevent sex trafficking from taking place around America's biggest sporting event. The reality is that there is no hard data to support that there is actually an increase during the Super Bowl.

Nonetheless, although someday there may be a comprehensive analysis proving that the rumor is true, for now it has definitely helped to bring more attention to the issue of human trafficking. It was not long ago that we barely read about human trafficking in the news. If we knew something, most thought of it as a problem that took place in other countries. Now we know that it takes place in all 50 states, in big cities and in small communities. In January alone, the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport chronicled news reports of human trafficking across 23 cities in 21 states. But even more importantly, because of the increased attention, there have been new initiatives to combat trafficking across 46 cities in 28 states, just in January 2016. Major U.S. organizations, such as Free the Slaves, the International Justice Mission, the Not for Sale Campaign, Slavery Footprint, the Polaris Project and End Trafficking, a project of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, are working full time to increase awareness and to create programs to end human trafficking.

Human trafficking is one of the most devastating social justice issues of my lifetime. I studied the Atlantic Slave Trade as part of my Ph.D. work in international race relations. During the 260 years of the trade, which represents one of the most horrific periods in world history, 10 million Africans who ended up serving as slaves in North and South America; 6 million more Africans served as slaves in Asia and 8 million more served on their own continent in Africa under no less brutal conditions. Another 10 million Africans died being transported to their final destination. In other words, during the course of 260 years, there were approximately 24 million human slaves who came from Africa. Although accurate numbers are hard to calculate, it is estimated that today there are between 26 to 28 million human slaves. Modern-day slavery is bigger today than in the entire history of global slavery between 1600 and the end of the Civil War.

Super Bowl XLIX remains the most-watched television program in United States history, with 114.4 million viewers. What many of those viewers did not know was that law enforcement agencies in 17 states arrested nearly 600 people and rescued 68 victims of human trafficking during a sting in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XLIX. After the previous Super Bowl in New Jersey, the FBI announced that it had arrested 45 pimps and freed 25 children who had been prostituted. Many of the children had been reported as missing in New York and New Jersey and were being held by traffickers in New Jersey for the Super Bowl. As Super Bowl 50 approached, various San Francisco and Bay Area agencies worked diligently to create awareness and send a message that trafficking will not be tolerated.

While there are between 26 and 28 million slaves worldwide, the estimate that one-third of the detected victims are children makes trafficking even more devastating. And sex trafficking is only one form of human slavery, while labor trafficking can include domestic work, factory or construction work, and migrant farming.

Activists began preparing nine months ago to use Super Bowl 50 as a platform to speak out against the $150 billion-per-year industry. In December, Santa Clara County officially launched the campaign to raise awareness through training employees and displaying ads on public transportation vehicles. Most recently, San Francisco International Airport held a training session to equip airport personnel to spot the warning signs of human trafficking.

Yet the Super Bowl is only one example of using the popularity of sports to develop awareness about human trafficking. Driven by the undocumented belief that major sports events create the circumstances where large groups of men come and alcohol flows freely to increase demand for illicit sex, there were 28 instances of individuals or organizations in 2015 using sports as a vehicle to fight human trafficking in the United States. Event organizers and governments in areas surrounding the event venue want to avoid the negative media coverage that could come with sex trafficking. At the same time, they want to raise awareness among the large number of attendees that they will not tolerate the exploitation of people who might be trafficked. It is an opportunity for young men and boys to get the message that buying and selling human beings is immoral and illegal and will be harshly punished.

  • At the NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournament, volunteers provided hotels and motels across Indianapolis with bars of soap that included the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) for potential victims to contact for help. Anticipating a rise in human trafficking offenses, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller prepared in part by displaying billboards that gave potential victims and witnesses resources to help identify and enforce the laws.

  • During Kentucky Derby week in Louisville, local businesses posted signs with information about human trafficking. They had been urged to do so by local nonprofit Free2Hope Inc., and a local church, Grace United Methodist Church.

  • Last summer, Cincinnati police rented downtown hotel rooms to investigate potential human trafficking activity during Major League Baseball's All-Star week. Local businesses also provided more than 15,000 bars of soap with the hotline in Cincinnati hotels.

  • Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich ran anti-human trafficking ads in both New York City and Glendale, Arizona, ahead of the College Football Playoff National Championship this year. One billboard was adjacent to University of Phoenix Stadium, where the national title game was played.

  • Even a big track event like the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa, reportedly brought traffickers and their victims to town. Anti-trafficking activities were organized by Des Moines' Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. I spoke at Drake University in the fall and was told by many that trafficking is a real issue at the Relays.

  • The Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, has been reported in the news as a site for sex trafficking. Named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Festival is one of the largest bodybuilding events in the world. Local anti-trafficking organizers work to minimize any potential sex trafficking.

If the Bay Area community successfully builds upon this progress, Super Bowl 50 has the potential to make significant strides in raising awareness against human trafficking. It appears that it is ready. As far back as May 2015, the Bay Area Anti-Trafficking Coalition held a Freedom Summit at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California, to discuss how to address the issue by raising awareness and fighting against potential human trafficking crimes. In December, Santa Clara County launched a human trafficking public awareness campaign featuring ads on Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority buses, bus shelters and light-rail vehicles. The ads were designed with images provided by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. In January, Bay Area prosecutors gathered to issue a call for law enforcement officials to be ready to enforce sex trafficking laws. The stage is set for Super Bowl 50.

Subsequent articles will delve into how labor trafficking is used to build sports facilities under life-threatening circumstances in Qatar, in addition to pieces on athletes working to raise awareness about human trafficking and athletes accused of participating as sex traffickers. Finally, there will be stories about athletes who have been victims of trafficking themselves.

The fact that athletes can either be victims of trafficking within the sports industry, or be accused of sex trafficking, highlights how human trafficking occurs on a widespread scale and across many industries. Despite being deemed the invisible crime, human trafficking crosses geographical regions, race, gender, sexual preference, age, profession and economic status. Sports can be part of the solution, but it also is part of the problem.

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 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the President of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport (NCAS). The latter has formed a partnership with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to create Shut Out Trafficking, which works with college athletics departments to use the sports platform to raise campus awareness about human trafficking. Lapchick is as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport for ESPN.com.