WASHINGTON – When the National Football League decides where to have the Super Bowl, it weighs everything from stadium seats to hotel rooms to transportation to security systems.
Now, just as Minnesota is making its own bid for a Super Bowl, Sen. Amy Klobuchar wants the NFL to consider another selection element: local efforts to thwart the sex trafficking of minors that often accompany such major events.
Making the fight against sex trafficking a specific consideration, if not a criterion, for picking a Super Bowl site is no modest proposal. In a recent meeting with senior NFL officials, Klobuchar, a Democrat, was joined by Cindy McCain, the wife of Arizona Sen. John McCain, a former Republican presidential candidate.
“We just told them we thought that would be a good idea [to ask about sex trafficking enforcement],” Klobuchar said in an interview. “There are other major events as well that can bring out sex trafficking. But this is the one that we’re focused on because of the fact that we’ve seen these increases before with the event.”
It is difficult to quantify how much sex trafficking the Super Bowl attracts. Klobuchar points to a 2011 study in Dallas that showed a 272 percent increase in “escort” ads in the weeks leading up to the game, as well as ads at the 2009 Super Bowl in Tampa that marketed 14- and 18-year-old girls for “Super Bowl Specials.” Others have said that prostitution arrests surrounding the weeklong celebration and game have been relatively modest, numbering in the low hundreds and certainly no more than other major events, including political conventions.
The NFL has been polite but noncommittal about making sex trafficking enforcement a separate part of its Super Bowl selection process.
The league supports strong laws against sex trafficking and more enforcement resources, said its vice president of public relations, Brian McCarthy. In September, it hosted a meeting with an FBI unit charged with fighting violent crimes against children. But the league has not decided whether to add a distinct sex trafficking criteria to the Super Bowl selection process.
“We were presented with that request recently and will review it as part of an overall assessment of law enforcement readiness in potential cities.” McCarthy said in an e-mail.
Klobuchar has a bill in the Senate modeled after Minnesota’s state law, which treats minors involved in sex trafficking as victims instead of criminals and which gives prosecutors more power to charge those who exploit them. Klobuchar sees NFL involvement in the overall fight against trafficking as delicate but doable.
“This is different than them coming out and saying they want to fight breast cancer,” she acknowledged, “because it is about law enforcement.”
“It is true that it’s not their players that are doing it,” she said. “That’s really important to get out there. But it is something that is associated with big events, the Super Bowl being the biggest of all big events.”
The senator said she requested the meeting with NFL Senior Vice President Adolpho Birch and Amy Jorgensen, the league’s manager of government relations and public policy, “because Cindy McCain was having trouble getting a meeting with them.”
Cindy McCain, who co-chairs the Arizona Governor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking, hopes to raise awareness about child sex trafficking and pass a state law ahead of the 2015 Super Bowl in Phoenix. She thinks the NFL should make strong anti-trafficking laws a criterion for any city getting the Super Bowl.
“I think [the NFL] had not come to terms with how to handle this,” she said of her initial trouble in getting a meeting with the league. “Events like the Super Bowl cause human trafficking to ping up. It becomes part of the fiber of the event. We’re not accusing players, but we need their help. People look up to them.”
The acceptance of prostitution is somewhat ingrained in the United States, said Lauren Martin, who directs research at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research Outreach-Engagement Center. Martin has interviewed dozens of women and children involved in the sex trade.
“We have hundreds of years of cultural experience that this is a victimless crime between two consenting adults,” Martin said.
Trying to distinguish sex trafficking of minors from prostitution in general can be difficult, she said, noting that people believe women are either physically forced into prostitution or willingly choose to sell their bodies.
“Kidnappings happen,” Martin said. “But there are gray areas where kids are lured with false promises.”
Said McCain: “Calling children prostitutes grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard.”
A brand challenge
Even when a business is on the right side of the issue, associating your brand with the term sex trafficking is disconcerting, said Marilyn Carlson Nelson, former CEO of the Minneapolis-based Carlson hotel chain.
“I think there is a reluctance when people are unaware of the scale of the problem,” she said.
The United Nations estimates that 2.5 million children are involved in the global sex trade. The average age of a sex trafficked child in the United States is 13 to 14 years old according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The U.S. Justice Department looked at human trafficking incidents in the U.S. from 2008 to 2010 and found that 40 percent involved child prostitution or child sexual exploitation.
Carlson took her company out on a professional limb in 2004, when she signed a pledge with an international group aimed at ending child prostitution, pornography and trafficking of children, and began educating Carlson employees to recognize and report suspected sex trafficking.
The travel industry considers itself “in the happiness business,” Nelson said. “Stepping out on this was not comfortable.”
Nelson initially could not find others in the travel industry to sign on to the effort. Nor could her employees get law enforcement to respond with urgency.
One of McCain’s emphases in Arizona is educating first responders, as well as the public.
She and Klobuchar think they have made a good case to the NFL that it eventually needs to take action. Nelson said time will help. After years of effort, she said, she finally enlisted Hilton, Hyatt and Delta Air Lines in the sex trafficking fight.
The NFL “could be leaders” in that fight and realize a “kind of halo effect,” Nelson said. “People in the sporting industry are heroes to young people.”
Klobuchar has not yet asked the NFL to do public service announcements to discourage sex trafficking.
“One thing at a time,” she said. “We had a positive first meeting. We are going to talk again after the Super Bowl and give them an update on what we’re doing with our legislation and go from there.”
Jim Spencer • 202-383-6123