Human trafficking happens every day in the US. Why do we hear about it only at the Super Bowl?

The sun sets behind Mercedes-Benz Stadium ahead of Sunday’s NFL Super Bowl 53 football game between the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots in Atlanta, Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

It’s a phenomenon that happens year after year.  

As hundreds of thousands of football fans flood into designated cities across the United States in anticipation of the Super Bowl, ranks of human traffickers bring sex- and labor-workers to meet the demands of the crowds, says Amy Farrell, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern who studies human trafficking.

On Thursday,  33 people in Atlanta were arrested on sex-trafficking charges ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl in the city.

The spectacle of the Super Bowl, including the parties, the influx of people from out of town, and a high concentration of men who, Farrell said, are statistically more likely to pay for commercial sex than women, make the big game a prime target for exploiters, she said.

“There is plenty of evidence to show that exploiters—pimps or people who exploit humans in other ways—from outside markets bring people into the city where the Super Bowl is,” Farrell said.

It’s not just the Super Bowl; Farrell said such exploitation occurs at any event that draws large, out-of-town crowds, including the World Cup, the Olympics, and professional conferences.

And while high-profile sex-trafficking stings such as the one on Thursday help to raise public awareness of the issue and stem human trafficking at the Super Bowl, they can create a sense that human trafficking is only an issue at large events, Farrell said.

“This is something that happens every day in Atlanta; it’s one of the places where we know there is a pernicious cycle of commercial sex,” Farrell said. “It’s something that happens the other 364 days after the Super Bowl leaves, too.”

She added that the focus on sex-trafficking crimes, while beneficial, can inadvertently obscure a bigger problem at large events: labor trafficking.

Labor trafficking, or the practice of forcing individuals to perform labor through the use of fraud or coercion, is likely to occur “at any event where you have a large number of contract vendors,” Farrell said.

Events such as the Super Bowl, or the World Cup, where food and product vendors pop up for the main event, are prime targets, Farrell said.

Contract workers, who have few workplace protections, are particularly vulnerable to labor exploitation, Farrell said.

“I would say that wherever you see a rise in sex trafficking, there’s an equal or greater rise in labor trafficking,” she said.

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at or 617.373.5718.