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.

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. Law enforcement cracked down on "talent" ads found on sites like Craigslist and Backpage, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation launched a #TackleDemand Twitter campaign leading up to the big day.

These efforts may have made a difference: There were 36 arrests related to human trafficking -- a significant drop from the previous year -- and 14 women were rescued during Super Bowl LII.

Prior to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, Delta Air Lines partnered with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Polaris CEO Bradley Myles, actor Terry Crews and Megan Lundstrom, a victim of human trafficking, for their third annual employee rally to combat human trafficking. Employees were taught the impact of human trafficking on aviation as well as how to identify possible victims of human trafficking; 71 percent of labor trafficking victims are brought into the United States by plane, according to the Polaris Project.

I was recently on a Delta flight and was surprised to hear the pilot ask the passengers to pay attention to a new in-flight video on identifying victims of human trafficking. Delta has also trained 56,000 of its employees to recognize signs of potential human trafficking. I hope that other airlines and hotels will follow suit and inform their customers of the signs.

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.

Chelsea Stewart and Meaghan Coleman made significant contributions to this column.

 

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