Researchers Suggest There Is No Evidence To Support Link Between Human Trafficking & Super Bowl

While human trafficking is a real problem that deserves attention, its connection to the Super Bowl is spurious at best.

a sign asks miami transit users to be on the lookout for signs of sex trafficking
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

While human trafficking is a real problem that deserves attention, its connection to the Super Bowl is spurious at best.

Super Bowl LIV kicks off in a couple of weeks. In the host city, Miami, authorities are asking hotel workers and ride-share drivers to be on the lookout for signs of sex trafficking. After all, for several years authorities in Super Bowl host cities have been operating under the belief that the big game brings an increase in human trafficking.

As it turns out, however, that’s not 100 percent true.

The Pervasiveness Of The Myth

On the surface, the idea that the Super Bowl host city will see an increase in human trafficking makes sense. After all, thousands of tourists will descend upon the host city, and many of those tourists will be men with disposable income, possibly with a view toward satisfying their sexual urges while in town. And human traffickers, knowing a market when they see one, will ramp up their efforts in order to meet demand.

The idea has been around since at least 2011, according to Slate, when Greg Abbott, at the time Texas‘ attorney general, declared Super Bowl Sunday “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.”

Subsequent Super Bowls have seen increased efforts at cracking down on prostitution in host cities, such as the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016 and Houston in 2017.

the hard rock stadium in miami
  A.J. Lipp / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

No Hard Evidence

Despite the seemingly widespread acceptance of the idea, as attested to by the efforts of law enforcement in Super Bowl host cities, there is actually zero evidence that human trafficking increases in cities hosting the Big Game, the World Cup, the Olympics, or any other major sporting event.

Jennifer O’Brien, an assistant professor and researcher at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, is clear that the evidence doesn’t back up the claim.

“There’s no evidence at all that the incidences or number of people being trafficked increases because of the Super Bowl.”

Similarly, Brandon Bouchard of the anti-human trafficking group Polaris says, via CNN, that the National Human Trafficking Hotline experiences “slight upticks” in calls and reports during Super Bowl weekend. However, Bouchard speculates that anyone calling the hotline was likely already trafficked before Super Bowl weekend.

Confusing Prostitution With Human Trafficking

Prostitution and human trafficking go hand-in-hand, of course. But that’s not to say that all sex workers are in the business involuntarily. In fact, by most estimates, the number of sex workers who are victims of human trafficking works out to about between 5 and 20 percent of them.

The math alone would indicate that, in any major city that would both host the Super Bowl and have an illegal sex trade, there are going to be sex workers plying their trade the weekend of the Big Game.

Yet, the notion that thousands, or even hundreds, of unwilling women and/or teenage girls are trafficked to Super Bowl host cities is utterly without merit, says Slate writer Ruth Graham.

Don’t Dismiss Sex Trafficking Outright

None of this is to say that sex trafficking isn’t a problem in the U.S.; it most certainly is, and law enforcement is trying valiantly to stay on top of it. However, focusing law enforcement resources on a problem that doesn’t exist — the supposed increase in human trafficking in Super Bowl host cities — just results in women who work in the sex industry voluntarily being rounded up in prostitution stings.

“The pressure on local police departments to keep an eye out for trafficking victims over Super Bowl weekend means they end up subjecting many nontrafficked adult sex workers to raids, arrests, and prosecution,” Graham writes.