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Shifting Our Attention to Where It’s Actually Needed

The True Intersection Between Human Trafficking and Major Sporting Events

With the Super Bowl right around the corner, we are reminded of the common misconception that pops up this time every year – namely, that with every major sporting event there is a spike in human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking. This misleading message is shared widely in the lead up to major sporting events through news outlets and social media, and with the host city often intensifying efforts to respond to the anticipated demand from sex buyers.

While the increased attention to human trafficking around the Super Bowl helps to raise awareness about the crime itself, it is important to remember there is no empirical evidence that the Super Bowl causes a spike in sex trafficking. Numerous research studies and investigations have indicated that there is little evidence to confirm a correlative link between sex trafficking and the Super Bowl. While there is no denying that human trafficking does occur in the same city as the Super Bowl, there is no evidence to substantiate the belief that there is a direct link between the two.

The increase in media and public interest on this topic raises an important question – What if we redirected our energy toward addressing instances of exploitation around major sporting events that we know are actually happening?

2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Concerns about the use of forced labor coming out of the western Xinjiang region of China, predominately of the Muslim Uyghur minority, have escalated in recent months with the kick-off of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Specific questions have been raised by members of the U.S. government, civil society, and investigative journalists, among others, about the possibility that Olympic affiliated merchandise is tainted with forced labor. However, little action has been taken by the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C) to address or respond to these claims.

In fact, according to a recent New York Times interview with Bennett Freeman, a former State Department official who was engaging with the I.O.C on behalf of the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, “it is really impossible at this point for the I.O.C. to rule out Uyghur forced labor content in Olympic-branded merchandise.” Following their decision to withdraw from conversations with the Coalition, the I.O.C. stated “while generic concerns have been expressed in the past about Beijing 2022’s product sourcing, the I.O.C. has not been approached about any specific case or situation, including by the Coalition.”

The I.O.C. continues to stand by their statement that forced labor was not involved in the production of the uniforms, regardless of the fact that the two companies contracted by the I.O.C. use cotton produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China.

The International Olympic Committee had a unique opportunity to use its platform on a global stage to take a firm stance and condemn the use of forced labor in our global supply chains. Instead of leading by example, they chose to gloss over the issue and evidence at hand, perpetuating the exploitation of vulnerable populations.

2022 FIFA World Cup

Since winning the bid for the 2022 World Cup over ten years ago, strong evidence and chilling first-hand accounts of forced labor and dangerous work conditions have been cited in Qatar, coming from the approximately two million migrant workers responsible for building the stadiums, hotels and transportation for the event. Over the years, trade unions and human rights groups have documented the abuses, exposing brutal working conditions, debt bondage and forced labor, all while the death toll among workers continued to rise at a staggering rate.

Following international outrage, Qatar vowed to make changes to the rights and protections established for migrant workers, promising to abolish the country’s kafala sponsorship system and increase worker pay to minimum wage. Many applauded the new laws, feeling encouraged that the coming years would be met with significant change and a better life for workers. However, a 2021 report by Human Rights Watch cautions that little has changed. Dangerous, work conditions and wage abuses persist, leaving many vulnerable to continued exploitation and abuse.

With less than twelve months until the start of the highly anticipated World Cup, another internationally recognized organization will be given a chance to use its global platform to make a difference and call for worker rights and reforms. However, given the lack of accountability over the past decade, we remain concerned that meaningful change may not happen.

Exploitation and forced labor cannot, and should not, remain the norm within the culture of major sporting events. So, as we look forward to the LVI Super Bowl this Sunday, and all those to come, instead of continuing to direct our time and resources toward fixing something that has been proven time and time again not to be broken, let’s channel that energy toward addressing instances of human trafficking that continue to persist and create global supply chains free from exploitation.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Kelsey Syms
Publish Date
February 11, 2022