For the first time in 30 years, the NFL Super Bowl has arrived in Los Angeles — and with it, a fair share of the global media hype that the annual sporting event is known for.
But just as predictably, the game has also brought attention to what has long been portrayed as the dark side of the Super Bowl: the risk of human trafficking.
In the days leading up to the Feb. 13 game in Inglewood’s new SoFi Stadium, local authorities have warned of coming sting operations and criminal penalties associated with sex trafficking.
For several weeks, initiatives like the “It’s A Penalty” program have enlisted NFL players like Rams kicker Johnny Hekker to remind visitors in places like LAX Airport of the factors that make Southern California a trafficking hotspot: its proximity to international borders, its attractiveness to runaway youths, and the presence of inner-city gang commerce.
Last year, for example, more than 70 people were arrested and six possible victims were aided following an investigation into sexual exploitation during Super Bowl week in Tampa.
In Los Angeles, nonprofit organizations also have stepped up their outreach to educate the public as well as offer victim assistance, including the SOAP Project, which distributes bars of soap to L.A.-area hotels labeled with tips on how to identify possible victims in need of immediate help.
But while local Catholic advocates involved in the fight against trafficking appreciate the renewed attention, they also warn there’s a risk in thinking that the Super Bowl is an isolated occasion of danger.
“It may be counterintuitive to how the media talks about trafficking related to this as a ‘Super Bowl issue,’ but that rhetoric can take away from the fact there are injustices done all the time,” said Sister Anncarla Costello, SND, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and president of the board of directors of Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST).
The Los Angeles Times went even further, decrying the association between the Super Bowl and the heightened risk of trafficking as a “myth” and “falsehood” in a Feb. 6 editorial.
Sister Anncarla noted that the recent surge in human trafficking cases has been a result not of major sports events, but in large part due to circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The danger is if we perpetuate this rhetoric around certain events such as the Super Bowl, people can start to associate human trafficking to only sporting events,” Sister Anncarla told Angelus. “This tends to mitigate the need to continue to educate people regarding the presence and the prevalence of this horrible crime, which happens every day, in every city and town, and even right next door.”
CAST, working with the Department of Justice, provided support to nearly 2,000 human trafficking survivors in 2021, a 556% increase since pre-pandemic 2019. Hotline calls also were up 97%.
Michael Donaldson, senior director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Life, Justice and Peace, sees human trafficking as a scourge deeply intertwined with many of the other important life issues his department deals with.
For example, Donaldson noted, abortions are often procured by perpetrators as a form of birth control for victims, homelessness can result from a victim fleeing a trafficker, and those who slip out of foster care often end up introduced into this vicious cycle.
“As a life issue, it is something Catholics need to be part of,” said Donaldson. “We can’t be silent especially as we are in the major center of it.”
Susan Patterson, the director of Through God’s Grace Ministry, has hosted a human trafficking resource table at OneLife LA (coincidentally held every year in January, also known as National Human Trafficking Prevention Month). Patterson said she has encountered many who had difficulty believing human trafficking was happening locally.
“For the faith community, a path has been clearly laid out for what we can do regarding pro-life, homelessness, and other issues, but, it is not clear what the role of the Church is in the fight against human trafficking,” said Patterson, who also helped start the SoCal Faith Coalitions Against Human Trafficking, whose member parishes include St. Lawrence Martyr Church in Redondo Beach and St. Joseph Church in Long Beach.
“We are not going to arrest our way out of the problem of human trafficking,” said Patterson, who believes that ending the scourge of sex trafficking calls for community support from Christians of all denominations.
One tool in that effort has been the 2020 Christian documentary film “Blind Eyes Opened: The Truth About Sex Trafficking in America,” offered to congregations as an educational resource.
Producer Geoff Rogers noted that one often-overlooked factor in LA’s sex trafficking is the proliferation of the adult entertainment business.
“[LA] has a history of sexualization of people for sale, both men and women,” said Rogers. “When you dive deep into this topic, it is as simple as the economics of a supply answer to a demand problem. Where does the demand come from? Often, the addiction to pornography taking place with a desire for unhealthy sex.”
Rogers, co-founder of the faith-based U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking based in L.A., agrees that while Sunday’s Rams-Bengals championship game will attract a tremendous amount of focus with anti-trafficking campaigns, “in a way, the Super Bowl may get a bad rap. Yes, human trafficking exists and so many watch this game around the country, it is a great way to raise awareness of what’s happening. But it is not particular to this.”
Still, Catholic advocates see a providential stroke in the Super Bowl’s early February timing: The International Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking, on Tuesday, Feb. 8, coincides with the feast day of St. Josephine Bakhita, an African nun who was kidnapped as a child in the late 1870s and sold into slavery in Sudan and Italy.
It’s a day that Sister Anncarla sees as an opportunity to honor victims but also pray for the conversion of perpetrators.
“As members of the Body of Christ we believe that where one is suffering, we are all suffering,” said Sister Anncarla.
“Many of us cannot be on the front lines of the fight against human trafficking for whatever reasons, but instead of sidestepping the issue, we have the power to lift in prayer those who can … and, of course, our suffering sisters and brothers who are the victims. We all can do something.”
More resources/organizations related to human trafficking issues:
— The 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888;
— U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking (Sistersagainsttrafficking.org);
— The Thai Community Development Center’s Slavery Eradication and Rights Initiative (thaicdc.org/proj/seri);
— The Thousand Oaks-based After Hours Ministry (Afterhoursministry.org).