Human Trafficking and Sporting Events
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Adding my two-year-old son to my wife and my 10-year tradition of attending the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four and Championship game was the highlight of my year. I was eager to go to Minneapolis with my family and enjoy all the Final Four festivities geared towards children and families for the first time. It did not disappoint and I was sad to leave a city that was so hospitable to me and my family during such a memorable long weekend.
I vividly remember sitting in my living room the day after we returned from the tournament and reading that while we were in Minneapolis, police arrested 58 people there in a 5-day operation. Charges were brought against 47 people for felony solicitation of a minor and 11 for sex trafficking or promotion of prostitution. Federal and local law enforcement agents and officers posed as minors or as sex buyers online and on social media platforms, and then arrested the individuals they had been conversing with online when they arrived at a prearranged meeting place. The most important statistic of the operation, however, is that 28 people, including a minor, were rescued from “trafficking situations.”
I have written previously about witnessing human trafficking overseas, in locations most would consider questionable, if not downright abhorrent. And I’ve had opportunities to attend major sporting, commercial and political events worldwide and have witnessed what I can look back on now and characterize definitively as trafficking activities.
But, it’s different when you read, hear or see it happening at home. I wasn’t deployed in some far-off country, or living in a slum somewhere. This happened in a city with a thriving economic infrastructure. Minneapolis happens to be one of America’s most literate cities (and, fun fact – also one of the most giving… almost half of adults in Minneapolis and St. Paul devote some of their free time to volunteer work!).
The operation in Minneapolis, while disturbing, was not surprising, given the statistics of estimated trafficking in the United States. The National Human Trafficking Hotline receives an average of 150 phone calls a day (increasing every year) from victims needing rescue, and concerned citizens reporting potential trafficking activities. It’s estimated that that number pales in comparison to the actual sex and labor trafficking incidents that go unreported every day in the U.S.
It’s easy to imagine why trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is so rampant in cities that host large-scale sporting events in the days and weeks leading up to the event. But to be sure, let’s look at some specific events across the country in which the widespread celebration was partnered with the kind of terrible things most only witness in movies. While it’s impossible to know how many girls, boys, women and men are being trafficked through host cities, one can get a rough idea based on arrests that are made as a result of operations targeting traffickers during high-profile city events.
In February 2019, at Super Bowl LIII, Atlanta law enforcement arrested almost 170 people over an 11-day period leading up to the championship game (up from just over 100 arrested in Houston the year before). Within a week of the game 13 children were rescued from human trafficking networks. The Super Bowl itself is considered by some as the largest single human trafficking event in the world. In 2017 there was a nationwide push targeting human traffickers in the days leading up to the Super Bowl that led to 750 arrests nationwide. One hundred of those were in Houston, Texas (the location for that year’s Super Bowl), and the rest came from 15 states. Six minors and 86 adults were also rescued from trafficking networks during this time.
An undercover sting operation by the Child Exploitation Task Force (made up of local and federal agencies) targeting prostitution and child trafficking was conducted in April 2019 leading up to the Masters Tournament. The operation netted five arrests in Augusta over the weekend of the tournament in April 2019.
In July 2019, two separate undercover sex trafficking / exploitation operations during the 2019 MLB All-Star game in Cleveland, Ohio, resulted in almost 50 people being arrested for in-person and online trafficking activities.
Police officers in Louisville rescued 13 trafficking victims and underage girls the day of the Kentucky Derby but they admit those numbers reflect the “tip of the iceberg” on estimated trafficking activity in Louisville that first Saturday of May every year. In addition to 150,000 people descending upon the town for the Derby, traffickers are estimated to arrive in Louisville with their victims in numbers that earn the Derby the dubious honor of being the estimated second most popular major event for human trafficking in the U.S., after the Super Bowl.
These are just a few examples of increased trafficking arrests this year related to major sporting events. But you don’t have to do too much research understand that the link between the two is not a new phenomenon. In 2018, Matt Sprague provided a horrifying account of his childhood being sexually trafficked out of hotel rooms during Indianapolis 500 racing weekends (https://www.freedomunited.org/news/indiana-man-recalls-being-trafficked-out-of-hotel-rooms-during-indy-500/).
After reading all of this, you may wonder what you can do. Special events, as any tourist attraction or destination, bring in droves of people. As an attendee at a special event you’re obviously there to enjoy yourself and be a part of the celebration. But just as we’ve all grown accustomed to a heightened sense of security in attending public events, trust your gut when you see something that could potentially be a sign of human trafficking.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline publishes a good reference list of general indicators that human trafficking might be occurring that include:
· verbal or physical abuse;
· restricted or controlled communications;
· no freedom of movement or evidence of constant monitoring;
· no control of money, cell phone, or ID;
· exhibiting fearful, anxious, or submissive behavior;
· dressing inappropriately given the climate;
· no knowledge of current or past whereabouts; and
· signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, or fatigue.
The natural question that arises when you see one or more of these signs, of course, is “should I get involved?” To be clear, I’m not advocating you interfere and directly confront anyone aside from obviously offering help to a fellow human being if they ask for it or appear in need. Ultimately, the decision to report any suspected trafficking activity that you observe to the police, or hotel management, is an individual decision and something you have to decide for yourself given the specifics of the environment and situation in which you find yourself in the moment. My personal opinion is to err on the side of reporting as Police are best equipped to make the judgment on whether something illegal is happening.
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