The Super Bowl is known for many things. The big plays. The over-the-top halftime show. The creative commercials. However, it’s also become associated with sex trafficking, which many people perceive to be more prevalent during the annual event than any other time of the year.
But does that perception actually hold water? Not necessarily.
“I think most of the recent research around this issue has shown it is far more myth than reality,” said Joan Reid, a criminology professor at USF’s St. Petersburg campus. “Sex trafficking occurs in the dark and is kind of hidden. Around the Super Bowl, everyone turns on their flashlights and starts looking.”
There are a number of reasons why the Super Bowl has become synonymous with sex trafficking. First, because sex traffickers need a market, it’s assumed they target major events and large cities where there’s an influx of people. Second, big sporting events tend to attract a lot of men, the likely clientele for sex workers. These assumptions, coupled with extensive media coverage and the level of scrutiny that comes with the Super Bowl, have prompted law enforcement agencies to devote considerable resources to prevent sex trafficking in the cities where the big game is played.
However, a 2019 study on sex trafficking that examined the connection between major sports events, including the Super Bowl, and trafficking rates for sexual exploitation found little empirical evidence connecting the two. Overall, experts say no direct link exists between the Super Bowl and an increase in sex trafficking.
“When trafficking happens, those who spot it are ready to call law enforcement and law enforcement is ready to apprehend suspects, but that doesn’t mean there are more cases,” said Reid, who recently received a grant with colleagues from all three USF campuses to establish a research lab devoted to studying human trafficking. “What is increasing is the awareness of this issue around the Super Bowl.”
And Tampa, where Super Bowl LV will kick off Sunday, is no exception. During a press conference held in January on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced that 71 people had been arrested between December and January in an investigation dubbed “Operation Interception.” The investigation was cited as “one of many proactive approaches” the Sheriff’s office has taken to combat human trafficking leading up to the Super Bowl.
“With less than a month until the big game, our covert operations continue seeking those who choose to sexually exploit others here in our community,” Chronister said in a statement. “Our goal, as the operation name explains, is to ‘intercept’ individuals involved in sexual exploitation before they are able to take advantage of vulnerable individuals and, ultimately, to deter others.”
The Super Bowl Host Committee, along with the Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL and a number of local, state and federal agencies have also been putting out messaging against human trafficking. Their “It’s a Penalty” campaign aims to educate sports fans and the general public about what human trafficking is, including the penalties for offenders and ways to spot and report signs of exploitation. Additionally, 54 Hilton-brand hotels will display informational posters and materials about human trafficking and 2,500 Ubers will display rearview mirror tags with both national and local reporting hotlines. Also, It’s a Penalty has trained hundreds of drivers to identify potential victims of human trafficking.
Whether threats of human trafficking surrounding the Super Bowl are exaggerated or not, statistics show Tampa is still considered a hotbed for exploitation. According to Polaris, a nonprofit, non-governmental organization that works to combat and prevent sex and labor trafficking in North America, Tampa ranks 12th of all American cities for the number of calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Florida as a state has the third-highest rate of human trafficking cases reported.
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