Campaign to fight human trafficking raises awareness as Super Bowl LV approaches

With thousands of people set to step foot in Tampa for Super Bowl LV festivities, local and global organizations as well as state agencies partnered up to spread awareness about the growing issue of human trafficking across the Tampa Bay area.

In conjunction with Super Bowl LV, It’s a Penalty (IAP), a global organization focused on preventing abuse, exploitation and human traffic through sporting events, launched the “2021 Super Bowl LV” campaign Jan. 11 in collaboration with the NFL Foundation, Uber and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The campaign aims to “educate” sports fans and the general public on human trafficking, “equip” them to report suspicious activity and “encourage” victims to speak up about their personal experiences.

Across Tampa, the organization distributed materials and trained volunteers to help raise awareness about the issue. Starting Jan. 30, IAP started supplying local hotels across Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties with educational materials on human trafficking and had 400 volunteers distribute soap and makeup remover wipes with hotline information and names of missing children displayed on them. 

The organization also trained hundreds of Uber drivers on how to identify and report human trafficking cases as well as had 2,500 drivers display rearview tags with national and local reporting hotlines.

Commissioner Kimberly Overman, who is part of the Hillsborough County Commission on Human Trafficking, explained the importance of raising awareness around this problem, especially when the city hosts a big event that attracts people from all over the country. 

“Who knew we’d end up with both, playing in the Super Bowl [and] with our home team,” Overman said. “So that makes it even more important that we have a wide outreach, that we talk about big events, because frequently, traffickers will move from city to city for big events, and not just the Super Bowl, whether it be … any large convention, those kinds of things. They’re in the business of bringing someone to sell to someone else.”

The U.S. recorded 11,500 cases of human trafficking in 2019, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. That same year, Florida was ranked as the state with the third-highest number of human trafficking cases at 896, and Tampa was ranked the city with the 12th highest number of calls per capita to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the country. 

Traffickers in positions of power tend to take advantage of individuals who are vulnerable or who need something. Monica Landers, social and behavioral researcher at USF, said that victims are usually exploited in exchange for housing or money, a behavior that occurs in sex trafficking, one of the types of human trafficking.

“So we call that commercial sexual exploitation of children, or domestic minor sex trafficking, and that one is specifically U.S. kids who are involved in sex trafficking,” Landers said. 

Joan Reid, director of the USF Human Trafficking Risk to Resilience Research Lab, said victims of trafficking have to carry psychological, emotional and physical effects from the exploitation for the rest of their lives. 

“For example, if you take a 14-year-old girl — and that’s what research shows, that 14 is kind of the average age that girls are trafficked initially — that girl will be pulled out of school, so she won’t get an education,” Reid said. “So you have a lifelong financial burden … health consequences, emotional, psychological consequences. It’s just really hard to recover. So that’s kind of a continual burden on that individual for life.”

Landers said she witnessed the effect that human trafficking activities around big events have on individuals when she was in Miami evaluating an intervention program, which helped with the treatment of youth who were trafficked or at risk of being trafficked. 

She said last year, around the time the city was hosting Super Bowl LIV, a lot of them briefly “ran away” from the program and only after they returned to the program did Landers realize what occurred while they were away.

“They all kind of left … and they came back very different than they left,” Landers said. “So hair looking different, nails looking different. [They] had things that they didn’t have when they left, and one of the program directors was like, ‘OK, since when did all these kids become so interested in the Super Bowl? Like what is going on?’”

Landers said the people involved with the intervention program realized the teens were not interested in the Super Bowl, they were looking for “potential buyers” who are drawn to those types of environments. She explained that the influx of visitors to cities during large events is a factor contributing to increased human trafficking since traffickers can find targets more easily.

“If [traffickers] go somewhere else, and [they] have these hordes of people, [they] can do [human trafficking], and the thought is that there’s less likelihood that [they’re] going to be caught,” Landers said. “Transience makes [traffickers] feel protected to do things that they might not do in their own home community.” 

While some might believe that major events are linked with an increase in human trafficking cases, Reid said there’s still not enough data to support that correlation. She said though increases during major events have been documented, she thinks this is because law enforcement and social service providers are concentrated in areas of the city hosting celebrations and thus criminal behavior is less likely to go unnoticed.

“So there’s just a huge influx of work and interventions that go on during the Super Bowl,” Reid said. “There are more arrests, there’s more attention to helping the victims. But the research really doesn’t show that there’s a big spike.”

Reid said that campaigns like IAP’s 2021 Super Bowl LV campaign bring community awareness to the issue, however, she said there is no research to show that these efforts have been enough to make a difference in decreasing human trafficking rates.

“To this point, there has just not really been a lot of evaluation done on these types of campaigns to see. Does it change public perception? Does it change public behavior? We don’t really know that,” Reid said.

Even if studies haven’t been produced to evaluate the effectiveness of the campaigns yet, Landers, Overman and Reid agree that education and awareness on the topic is crucial to help prevent human trafficking. Overman said it is important to understand that trafficking happens everywhere and to anyone

“Many times, human trafficking was described as ‘[traffickers] are bringing people from overseas and they’re selling them to people here,’” Overman said. “When in all reality, a majority of the people [who] are trafficked actually live in our own neighborhoods. And so it’s not somebody else, it’s us that are at risk.”

Landers said it is important to encourage members of the community to help prevent human trafficking. She said anti-trafficking efforts such as awareness campaigns and training can be implemented to identify cases within the community. 

“The month or two … before an event the traffickers, in this very wide network of traffickers, … [have] started [preparing] months in advance, [and] we’re way too late,” Landers said. “The lack of coordination and the lack of collaboration between state agencies and folks who can help to combat this, those are the cracks that the traffickers can slip through. Those are the cracks that these kids who need help … slip through, and nothing changes.”

Reid emphasized the importance of knowing that even if more awareness is raised around big events, human trafficking happens every day and it affects individuals, families and communities. 

“My main concern is that I don’t want the public to think that human trafficking is something that happens once a year on Super Bowl Sunday,” Reid said. “That is what I want the message to be, that this happens every Sunday, every day and in cities across the U.S., not just when a big event comes into town. 

“I hope … that we’re learning about human trafficking through the Super Bowl, that people will understand that, yes, it occurs during the Super Bowl, but it also occurs on other days and our enthusiasm and our passion to stop it should continue.”