Fighting human trafficking again getting spotlight ahead of Super Bowl

The issue of human trafficking gains more attention every year with the approach of one of the world’s major annual sporting events, the Super Bowl.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.”

Human trafficking is not the same as human smuggling, which involves illegal transportation of a person across a border.

“Every year, millions of men, women and children are trafficked worldwide – including right here in the United States. It can happen in any community, and victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality. Traffickers might use violence, manipulation or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations.”

When the Super Bowl was in Atlanta in 2019, more than 160 people were arrested during an 11-day, FBI-led human trafficking operation ahead of the game. The Violent Crimes Against Children/Human Trafficking Program and Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation Task Force also rescued 18 victims of human trafficking, including nine juveniles and nine adults.

The effort leading up to Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta included more than 25 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and District Attorney’s Offices, along with seven non-government organizations. Of the 169 arrests, 26 people were alleged traffickers and 34 suspects were allegedly people attempting to engage in sex acts with minors. The youngest sex-trafficking victim rescued was 14 years old.

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For this year’s game in Tampa, IJM, a Christian organization that works to stop trafficking and abuse of the poor around the world, partnered with the Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking to support anti-trafficking work around the Super Bowl. Minnesota Vikings star quarterback Kirk Cousins, as part of IJM’s pro athlete group Team Freedom, has taken a leading role in helping raise awareness. Other NFL players involved include Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, Jason McCourty and Devin McCourty.

IJM is based in Washington, with 21 field offices in 13 countries dedicated to the work. The Australia-based Walk Free Foundation has estimated that 40 million people are victims of modern slavery worldwide. According to the U.S. State Department, about 25 million humans are being trafficked around the globe. That means people forced to perform work for an exploiter’s benefit. Many of those victims are being trafficked specifically for sex, often sold up to 20 times per day. One in four is a child.

“What we need to do is wake people up and bring light to it to realize it’s taking place,” Cousins said. “I find when you shine a light on darkness, the darkness has to back off.”

The NFL highlights several local organizations at the Super Bowl site each year as part of community-building efforts. One grant went to the Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking. Florida ranks third among U.S. states in volume of human trafficking victims.

During the last two decades, Congress has provided law enforcement agencies more tools for specifically charging human trafficking crimes. Collaboration between municipal, county, state and federal authorities has increased, and non-governmental organizations such as IJM and its peers have been included in the process to enhance victim support, said Kevin Sibley, the acting special agent in charge for the Tampa branch of Homeland Security Investigations.

“I think that we have a very good, robust plan today,” Sibley said. “When I first got into this 25 years ago, we literally had no idea what we were doing.”

Much of HSI’s work involves faceless victims, but human trafficking cases can be emotionally draining for even those with the most steely demeanors. Victims rarely realize they are victims, said Sibley, as he cited a prior case as a sobering example.

“Despite the fact that the trafficker and his friends had raped the victim numerous times, despite the fact that he had beaten her, despite the fact that he had shoved a gun in her face and other places, during sentencing she actually testified on his behalf and told him she loved him,” Sibley said. “So traffickers have a very, very powerful hold over their victims.”

Those powerful feelings can also be used for good. Former NFL running back Donald Brown is now the director of partnerships for IJM’s Team Freedom, inspired to join after learning about child sex trafficking at a conference for pro athletes while he was still playing.

“At the time, I was living in a complete bubble,” Brown said. “It just pulled on my heartstrings.”

Raising children, naturally, has made the cause feel even more pressing, as Cousins recently reflected in a conversation with his wife about their 3-year-old son.

“I know someday Cooper’s going to go to school, and someone’s going to make fun of him. Someone’s going to criticize him. Someone’s going to bully him. That’s part of life, but that would just infuriate me,” Cousins said. “So you can imagine all the more someone actually trafficking him. It’s hard to even go there, but it just explains the level of darkness, the fact that this is happening in the millions, and the fact that something must be done.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.