As Glendale, Ariz. prepared to welcome over 100,000 football fans for Super Bowl XLIX, the state braced for a darker influx of company—the predators and victims of human trafficking.
Public officials from both sides of the aisle have voiced concern over Super Bowl Sunday, claiming it draws high levels of sex trafficking activity to host cities. In 2014, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., cited the Super Bowl as “one of the largest venues for sex trafficking in the country” and referenced a study showing online escort ads increased almost 300 percent from a Saturday in mid-January to the Saturday before the 2011 Super Bowl. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, echoed similar claims this year saying, “The dirty little secret is that the Super Bowl actually is one of the highest levels of human sex trafficking activity of any event in the country.” But is it?
The dramatic increase in escort ads around game time comes from a 2011 study by Traffick911, a religious nonprofit based in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. After crunching the numbers, the Washington Post refuted the stat on Jan. 29 saying that the ads only experienced a 172 percent increase and that the 300-percent figure was “simply incorrect.” Similarly, CEO of anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project Bradley Myles wrote in a blog for HuffPost, “It is important to know that there isn’t much evidence linking the Super Bowl to a major rise in trafficking.” While Myles confirmed that trafficking could spike at “any event where masses of people descend upon a specific city or region,” he emphasized that exploitation thrives well after kick-off.
Evidently, the relationship between human trafficking and the Super Bowl remains a subject of debate. However, the epidemic of human exploitation in the United States does not.
According to estimates cited by a 2013 Congressional Research Service Report, as many as 100,000 U.S. children may be victims of domestic human trafficking, and the tally of victims brought into the U.S. by traffickers each year might be as high as 17,500 people. Globally, the State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Report suggests that the estimated number of men, women and children who are trafficked at any one time worldwide may reach as high as 27 million—enough to fill every seat in the University of Phoenix stadium every day for over a year.
Regardless of whether the Super Bowl is associated with heightened trafficking activity or not, it’s critical that the increased awareness during the event be extended to broader and more sustained efforts to address the true magnitude of the problem. If the high profile of NFL football can promote anti-domestic violence as has been demonstrated with several television and internet campaigns, then perhaps the primetime event can harness anti-trafficking efforts in the same way.
After all, human trafficking is debilitating every day before, after and including Super Bowl Sunday. And in this way, maybe the “dark side” of the game need not be dark, so long as it illuminates exploitation in a way that incites action and change come Monday morning.
A version of this post was submitted as part of an assignment for a J404: Interpretation of Contemporary Affairs course with Professor James Baughman.