human trafficking in sport



The increase in human trafficking around major sporting events is nothing new. The Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup and Formula One racing are all examples of events which increase demand for sexual, manual labor and other services. Russia, the 2018 World Cup host country, has been in the spotlight for human trafficking and human rights violations for several years. Human trafficking often materializes in the form of sex trafficking, labor trafficking or both. Statistically, the United Nations reports that 2.4 million people across the globe are victims of human trafficking at any one time. Of those, 80% are forced into sexual slavery, half of those are children. Seventeen percent of those victims are exploited as forced labor. Human trafficking around major sporting events is a growing problem we can no longer ignore. Generally, this term paper discusses human trafficking in sports and human right issues in sport.


Human trafficking is a social phenomenon that has an impact on almost the entire planet. There is no difference between developed countries and countries in transition. It affects millions of children, women and men and on the other hand it brings profit that counts in billions of dollars to criminals all over the world. We stepped well into the 21st century, and yet there still exist slavery, coercion and trafficking in organs. This is why all available public resources must be used in the fight against human trafficking and the entire international community needs to be alarmed. Victims of trafficking do not have freedom of movement and freedom to choose because all human rights are denied to them. Drug, weapon and human trafficking are three most profitable criminal activities. Large profits, minimal costs and a small percentage of convicted traffickers are important parameters that attract many criminals and organized groups to commit this crime.

Trafficking involves the buying and selling of a person for the purpose of its exploitation. That exploitation occurs due to the use of force, threats, fraud, deceit, abuse of authority, abuse of a position, abduction and so forth. The consent of a victim of exploitation does not change the fact that it is human trafficking and cannot be a circumstance which excludes the existence of the crime.

This term paper will examine the phenomenon of human trafficking for sexual purposes as it relates to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Games. The rationale for focusing upon the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics arose as a consequence of concerns raised by various groups that the existing human trafficking situation in Vancouver could be exacerbated as result of hosting the Winter Olympics (Future Group 2007). The objectives of this paper are to: first, examine the perceived link between human trafficking for sexual purposes and the 2010 Games; second, evaluate the preventative measures in place for the 2010 Games; and, third, evaluate the implications of these measures. Within the specific area of human trafficking and events there is a substantive gap in research. Work within this area has largely evolved from human rights and sex industry safety organisations (Frontline Consulting 2009; Future Group 2007; Hennig et al 2007). Data collection took place prior to the 2010 Olympics. A series of twenty-two semi-structured interviews were undertaken with public, private and third sector stakeholders. This ranged from, for example, police officials, city officials, legal NGO’s, sex worker groups, support organisations and women’s groups. Data analysis was facilitated with the use of the Nvivo package.

It is suggested that there is a mixed evidence base for the perceived link between human trafficking for sexual purposes and this mega sporting event. This is compounded by public policy challenges and moral agendas. Findings centre upon an examination of the preventative measures in place in relation to the 2010 games and human trafficking. Key preventative measures are identified, primarily related to education and awareness based campaigns by the third sector. It is argued that the origins of the preventative measures have an important part to play in the human trafficking strategies. Further, it is suggested that such campaigns bring to the fore issues regarding city imaging and event impacts, moral agendas, and collaboration between stakeholders. Finally, it is argued that the Olympic Games acted as a catalyst for debates regarding prostitution/sex work.

Therefore, this paper focuses upon an under-researched area which is at the nexus of tourism, events and human rights. It raises a set of critical challenges in relation to public policy and, in particular, the need for an integrated strategic framework which encompasses a holistic and inclusive set of stakeholders.


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. Every year, millions of men, women, and children are trafficked in countries around the world, including the United States. It is estimated that human trafficking generates many billions of dollars of profit per year, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime.

Human trafficking is a hidden crime as victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement.

Moreover, traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. They look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. The trauma caused by the traffickers can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.

However, the most widely accepted definition of human trafficking comes from the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, otherwise known as the Palermo Protocols. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2000 and accepted by over 150 countries, the Palermo Protocols defines human trafficking as:

In the case of sex trafficking, exploitation implies the forced prostitution or sexual abuses of vulnerable men, women, and children. The United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) declares it a crime to coerce, force, or mislead men, women, and children into sex slavery, whether those efforts to coerce are subtle or overt. However, if a victim is a minor (under 18), it is a considered a crime regardless if there is evidence of force, fraud, or coercion.

Victims are trafficked across both national and international borders, infiltrating nearly every part of the world, according to one World Health Organization report. The global scale of the problem is attributed to the various roles nations play in the exploitation of the victims, whether that be recruiting, harboring, transporting, or acting as destinations for victims. One UN report estimates that trafficking victims represent over 130 different nationalities and are present in almost 120 countries. While the problem is clearly of global scale, with some 600,000 to 800,000 victims trafficked across international borders each year, most human trafficking surprisingly still occurs within national borders.

WHAT CAUSES HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN SPORTS?                                                

An increase in tourists seeking entertainment, including commercial sex, increases the potential risk for exploitation and human trafficking. Traffickers are opportunistic hunters, and they see major sporting events and the hundreds of thousands of people who flock to sports venues as an opportunity for huge profits with very little risk of penalty or punishment. Human trafficking is a business, and traffickers will take advantage of what they perceive to be good business opportunities – including national and international sporting events.

Traffickers “advertise” the availability of commercial sex using online escort ads and social media sites, such as In monitoring these sites, law enforcement officials have observed that as the date of a major sporting events nears, ads for escorts and commercial sex services increase on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis.

However, sporting events are not the root cause of human trafficking. The root causes that allow trafficking to flourish are (a) a culture that accepts treating people, especially women and children, as objects that can be bought and sold; (b) poverty, lack of access to education and health care, and desperation which maintain a pool of vulnerable victims; and (c) the ready market for cheap labor and cheap goods.

Human trafficking is a crime that preys on society’s most vulnerable people. Viewing it from a business perspective requires that we consider the relationship of supply and demand to the driving force of profit. No matter how many criminals are prosecuted, there will be other opportunists to step into their shoes. No matter how many victims are rescued, there will still be a steady supply at the ready. So long as the supply, demand, and profit remain unchanged, modern-day slavery will continue. In order for this to change, society must fundamentally alter the equation and make the business of human trafficking the opposite of what it is today: a high-risk, low profit, readily-recognizable crime.


The link between the Super Bowl and trafficking has been debated for years. News reports in the past warned that the influx of crowds increased sex trafficking. But Polaris and others say no evidence supports a causal relationship between the two.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline sees “slight upticks” in calls and reports during Super Bowl weekend, Polaris spokesman Brandon Bouchard said. But Polaris attributes the boost to heavier promotion of the hotline, not an increase in the prevalence of human trafficking on Super Bowl weekend, he said. If someone calls during the Super Bowl weekend to report being trafficked, “they were very likely being trafficked before that too,” Bouchard said.

The FBI traditionally sees an uptick in online solicitation during large scale events like the Super Bowl, spokesman Kevin Rowson said. “The problem exists not just at major sporting events but throughout the year in communities all around the country.” Ahead of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota asked the University of Minnesota to examine the scholarly evidence about the idea that the Super Bowl causes an uptick in sex trafficking, said Lauren Martin, Director of Research at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center, which conducted the study.

The study found some empirical data to support claims that the Super Bowl, “like many other large and localized public events, correlates with an increase in the number of online ads for commercial sex in the host city.”

“However, the Super Bowl does not appear to have the largest impact and evidence suggests the impact is short-lived,” the authors wrote in a research brief.

The study says that the first documented concerns about the impact of major sporting events on sex trafficking were for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Projections of high number of trafficking victims did not materialize, but the response “set the template” for how host cities and NGOs treated sex trafficking in subsequent major international sporting events, including Super Bowls, the UROC brief says.

The authors said they found a tendency across host cities for the media and others to “recycle unfounded and exaggerated numbers” of potential trafficking because of heightened demand caused by the event.

The authors warned of potential downsides of public awareness campaigns and the portrayal of law enforcement involvement as a form of “rescue.” Some campaigns — through their language and imagery — portray sex trafficking as tantamount to kidnapping, the brief says. Victims are often reduced to stereotypes of young, naive white females in need of rescue, the study says.

But victims experience both overt and subtle forms of manipulation, violence and exploitation, the authors said. “Over emphasis on a total lack of physical freedom may make it harder for many individuals to see themselves in anti-trafficking campaigns,” the authors say.

Moreover, this type of campaign imagery suggests that only certain types of victims are worthy of help, oversimplifying “the social, economic and other pressures involved in the commercial sex industry,” the authors said.

The brief also warns of the potential negative effects of enhanced policing as part of the campaigns. Not all sex trafficking victims respond positively to law enforcement for a variety of reasons, the authors said, and some have had negative experiences with police in the past. Research shows, according to the authors, that even for trafficking victims, exiting the commercial sex trade “is a process that takes time and should be guided by the self-determination of each individual according to her or his own needs.”

Anecdotally, Polaris has heard that more “prostitution” arrests occur over Super Bowl weekend, Bouchard said. “But that largely has to do with the fact that law enforcement are specifically looking for it then.” And the trend in law enforcement is to focus on arrests of traffickers and those seeking to buy sex, not sex workers or those who are being trafficked, he said.

During the 2018 Super Bowl, a multi-agency operation participated in a “recovery focused initiative” to arrest those seeking sex for sale and provide social services to those being trafficked, the Minneapolis Police Department said.

Over 10 days, 89 people were arrested for purchasing sex, seven accused traffickers were arrested, according to data provided by the department. Additionally, 20 women identified as “recoveries” were put in contact with social services instead of being arrested, a spokesperson said.

Already in Atlanta, 33 people were arrested over four days this week in the metro area, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said in a news conference Wednesday. Four people were “rescued,” she said.

In nearby Douglas County, 16 people were arrested in a joint operation the Department of Homeland Security on charges of human trafficking, pimping, prostitution and pandering the Douglasville Police Department said in a statement.


Our biggest sports events have joy and compelling stories but also have a dark side, as they are major targets for potential human trafficking threats. The U.N.-backed International Labour Organization estimates that there are more than 40 million current victims of the various forms of human trafficking globally. For perspective, in the 240-year history of the Atlantic slave trade before the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there were 24 million slaves globally, including 10 million in the Americas.

It was quite a year for sports in 2018. The year kicked off with an underdog triumph in Super Bowl LII at the recently built U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots for the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory. Later, the world came together at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. There, the USA women’s hockey team claimed the gold medal and a platform to continue the case for equal pay.

The USA was not the only women’s hockey team that made history at the Games; women from North and South Korea played under the same flag as the first Unified Korean team. Later in the year, numerous Unified Korean teams made even more history as they won medals at the Asian Games.

The FIFA World Cup was played this summer in Russia. It proved just as exciting as the other sporting events, with the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR) system to the tournament, a record-setting number of penalty kicks and a celebration so large it registered as an earthquake on seismic sensors.

All these events clearly illustrate that sports has the power to bring people together and to change the world. When thinking of major sporting events like the Olympics, World Cup and Super Bowl, these are the stories and the images we remember. However, we can no longer ignore the shadowy side of these events as human trafficking threats.

Human trafficking, known as modern-day slavery, is the second-largest criminal activity in the world and is a $150 billion a year industry. Human trafficking occurs year-round and worldwide, from major cities to small towns, and it can spike during major events. Events that draw big audiences and large numbers of out-of-towners create environments ripe for human traffickers. Marquee sporting events are not immune to this. Many believe, although it has never been officially documented, that the Super Bowl is the largest sex-trafficking event in the world.

Hayden (2014) completed a content analysis of Louisville, Kentucky, from April 2013 to August 2014 to research whether sex trafficking ads increased on Backpage during major events. Hayden (2014) studied the following: the Kentucky Derby of 2013 and 2014, International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Annual Conference, Street Hot Rod Nationals, Governor’s Local Issues Conference, Kentucky State Fair, International Boat Builders Expo, International Construction Utility Equipment Expo, Annual Operation CARE Conference Police, Livestock Expo, RV Trade Show, Louisville Gun Show, Sport, Boat and RV Show, Farm Machinery Show, Mid-American Truck Show, and the PGA Championship August 2014. She saw a spike in ads posted during particular events. According to Hayden’s research over the 15 months, 20,384 ads were posted to the site that otherwise averaged about 53 ads per day. Hayden (2014) saw four spikes in average activity during the 2013 and 2014 Derby, March Madness 2014 and during the 2013 Labor Day Weekend.

Hayden (2014) saw a drastic increase during the 2013 Kentucky Derby. 86 ads were posted on the site three days before. The number of ads posted during the event remained high and then drastically declined 3 days later. The most ads recorded from April 21 to May 17 were on May 4 at 120 ads on the day the Kentucky Derby took place. During the 2014 Kentucky Derby, there was a drastic increase the day before the Derby with 89 ads posted on the website and a drastic decline the day after. The most activity was seen the day of the race when 132 ads were posted. During the 2014 March Madness, Louisville, Kentucky, saw a drastic increase in ads posted. March 1 saw the most ads posted with a total of 164; whereas February 24 and March 3 saw the least for that week at 98, significantly above average.

Several weeks leading up to and during the week of the 2017 Super Bowl, a nationwide sweep resulted in about 750 arrests related to human trafficking activity. More than 100 arrests for trafficking were made in Houston, the host city.

At last year’s Super Bowl, law enforcement, businesses, and citizens alike came together to increase awareness of and try to mitigate human trafficking during the event through a number of different initiatives. A student from Crown College brought awareness to the epidemic by organizing a prayer walk around U.S. Bank Stadium to pray for the safety of police, healing for families affected by human trafficking, and protection for fans and athletes of the Super Bowl. Sisters of St. Francis educated churchgoers on what to look for, what to say, and how to help potential victims of human trafficking. Uber and many hotels trained employees on the signs of human trafficking.

Additionally, hundreds of administrators from Atlanta Public Schools attended training sessions in anticipation of the matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the Patriots, as children are at a greater risk of being sexually exploited, while federal agencies are also ramping up patrols around the city to find traffickers and their victims.

Though it is wonderful to see the collaboration of the Houston, Minneapolis and now Atlanta communities in the fight against human trafficking, what saddens me deeply are the human trafficking issues surrounding the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups.

The three previous World Cups — in Brazil, South Africa and Germany — had countrywide anti-trafficking campaigns aimed at educating fans about the effect of human trafficking. Rather than creating such a campaign in 2018, Russia created the perfect situation for potential traffickers. Russia adopted policies aimed at closing shelters that help human trafficking victims, had minimal laws against human trafficking, and the country eased visa restrictions around the time of the World Cup. With a long history of Nigerians being trafficked into Russia, Nigerian officials and the Nigerian government’s anti-trafficking agency, NAPTIP, were forced to increase efforts to prevent potential victims from leaving their country and traveling to Russia during the World Cup.

Jeremy Schaap’s E:60 feature in 2014 was one of the first reports showing that facilities in Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, were built largely with trafficked laborers. Under the Kafala system, many of the migrant workers charged with building stadiums, hotels, airports and other infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup have been stripped of their passports and forced to work and live in dangerous conditions. At one point, there was one death per day on work sites, and it is projected that the death toll could reach up to 4,000 laborers by 2022.

In December, more than six years after the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Jason Gandy was sentenced to 30 years in prison after attempting to bring a 15-year old boy to London to be sex trafficked.

It is important to note that human trafficking in sports does not only happen on the world’s biggest stages, but it can happen in our own backyards. In late 2017, a 17-year-old girl who was a victim of sexual assault and human trafficking called the police to report the man responsible, Elan Seagraves. Sadly, Seagraves was heavily involved in the community and sports. He was the boys’ soccer coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, California, a youth team coach, and a Lyft and Uber driver.

Moninda Marube, an anti-human-trafficking advocate and University of Maine at Farmington running coach, fell victim to human trafficking as he was trying to escape poverty and a bad political climate in Kenya. Marube flew to the United States in hopes of winning major races and earning lofty sponsorships. With no home and little to his name, Marube took another chance when he moved to Coon Rapids, Minnesota, to train and live with an agent. While in Coon Rapids, Marube’s agent took his passport and visa, forced him to live in a single room with several other runners, withheld the majority of his winnings and limited his communication with others. A few people in the community helped Marube escape from his agent and eventually move to Maine.

While in Charlotte, North Carolina, a woman named Evelyn Mack set up a private school where she lured in foreign student-athletes on the promise that they would earn athletic scholarships to prominent schools. Mack earned $75,000 by falsely representing that 75 student-athletes were attending her school and were, therefore, compliant with F-1 student visas. All of the student-athletes were actually in the U.S. illegally and mysteriously disappeared with basketball coaches or recruiters. Mack ultimately plead guilty to federal charges.

Finally, for some positive news: In 2018, Efe Obada of the Carolina Panthers, a survivor of human trafficking, made the final 53-man roster as the first player from the NFL International Pathway Program to do so.

Los Angeles Angels star Albert Pujols and his wife educated fans at an Angels game in September through a resource fair put together by their organization Strike Out Slavery. In its second year of operation, the program expanded with the Washington Nationals participating last August.

Then-Cleveland Browns coach Hue Jackson and his wife started the Hue Jackson Respite Services for Recovered Survivors of Human Trafficking to help victims of trafficking rebuild their lives. Former L.A. Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone co-founded United States Institute Against Human Trafficking and is making the fight against trafficking his life’s work.

The scale of this horrendous crime is disheartening. I believe that we must come together as a community and acknowledge the severity of this problem, including its significant impact on the world of sports. With January being National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, I urge everyone to take part in this fight against human trafficking by becoming educated about it and always being aware and proactive in protecting potential victims.


It is important to note that human trafficking in sports does not only happen on the world’s biggest stages, but it can happen in our own backyards. Nigeria is the most suitable state for human trafficking. Everything begins form the criminal trader, who promises a life of higher level to his future “goods”. Parents themselves persuade their blood and soul to sell themselves, and they readily agree because the seller promises an outstanding income, opportunity to receive education and other goods of civilization. It is far from case. Each year, more than 500,000 young women from Nigeria illegally go to brothels in Europe. The crossing to Europe is like a nightmare – illegal immigrants are transported on brittle boats to the shores of Spain and Italy. People, who could survive the road, faced unpleasant opening that they now have to trade their bodies on the street. Years in a row, the Government of Nigeria together with the church have opened few shelters for people who were too naive and became the victims of human trafficking.

Thousands of females, who became targets of human smugglers in West African countries, including Nigeria, are now in Europe.  UNODC estimates that West African victims of traffickers, mostly in Nigeria, account for almost ten percent of women who are forced into sex trade in Western Europe. A major role in Nigeria’s trafficking is played by the city of Benin City in southern Nigeria, where there is a branching network of trafficking. There, traffickers of human commodity are looking for girls who are attracted by bright perspectives of work or education abroad. The victims are offered forget documents and are told that they are supposed to pay only for transit after they get to the destination country.


Preventing human trafficking requires the efforts of local, state and federal authorities. At every level of government more can be done to fight this scourge. But this likely will not happen by itself. It requires people to contact their local representatives and to ask them what they are doing to prevent trafficking. It also requires them to demand answers, in a public forum if necessary. Another good way to pressure elected officials into action is often by forming groups that carry the voices of many voters.

However, spreading the word about human trafficking need not be limited to public officials. There are many other ways, such as by writing letters to the editors of local newspapers and by making posts on social media, and by getting friends, neighbors and family members involved. Another good way is by requesting trafficking awareness courses at local schools. Finally, there are often opportunities to spread the word at the events themselves, by handing out literature or by displaying relevant information and discussing it with passersby.


Anderson, B., and O’Connell Davidson, J. (2003). Is Trafficking in Human Beings Demand Driven? A Multi-Country Pilot Study, International Organisation for Migration, Geneva.

Augustin, L. (2003). “A migrant world of services”, Social Politics, 10 (3), 377-396.Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). (2007), Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights – Opportunities for the Olympic Movement and Others, Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), Geneva, Switzerland.

Frontline Consulting. (2009), Human trafficking, sex work safety and the 2010 Games, Sex Industry Worker Safety Action Group, Vancouver.

Future Group. (2007), Faster, higher, stronger: Preventing human trafficking at the 2010 Olympics, Future Group, Calgary.

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