by Milessa Lowrie

We just saw a weekend of Final Four basketball with record-setting numbers: Villanova's 44-point margin of victory over Oklahoma was the largest ever in Final Four history. Here is another statistic from recent NCAA tournament history: a University of Louisville study in 2014 showed that online advertisements for commercial sex, a proxy for sex-trafficking, tripled during March Madness in 2013. There is an ugly underbelly to some of the world’s largest sporting events: human trafficking—both sex and labor slavery. They are crimes that go largely underreported, but are suspected to spike surrounding many popular, particularly multi-day, sporting events (as well as concerts, conventions, etc.). For instance, after the 2016 Super Bowl in February, Santa Clara police announced that they had recovered 42 suspected victims of sex trafficking in stings surrounding the largest sporting event in the country. And as the University of Louisville study demonstrates, collegiate as well as professional sporting events may increase opportunities for human trafficking.

In addition to sex trafficking, labor trafficking, particularly in the construction of sports venues, can lead to serious abuses. An Amnesty International report published last week documents severe labor exploitation in the construction of the 2022 World Cup venue in Qatar, including wage theft, unsafe working and living conditions, and the forced labor of migrant workers brought in to complete the construction. 

When I worked on human trafficking issues for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, I reported on the dimensions of the problem “over there.” It took coming home with eyes open to this silent suffering to understand that human trafficking—or modern day slavery as it is commonly described—is not just a problem in other parts of the world, it is an American problem too. Despite the fact that American sporting events (along with other public events documented in a recent Carnegie Mellon study), may increase the incidence of human trafficking, sports also offer an amazing platform to reach a vast audience and create social change. And our sports heroes may be just the abolitionists to help raise the public’s consciousness about the abuses taking place around us.

Several individual athletes, led by retired Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt, have pledged donations to protect human trafficking survivors as part of the Not For Sale campaign. Many MLB teams have also set aside a night to raise awareness and funds to combat human trafficking. For Super Bowl 50, the NFL worked with partners in the Bay Area including local government and non-profit organizations to provide materials and training to the hospitality industry to spot and report suspected trafficking. The impacts of awareness raising efforts are difficult to measure, but this is how change starts. Athletes and organizations are recognizing they have a platform and taking action to champion change.