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Is there such a thing as ‘Athletic Trafficking’? (By Lorin Mordecai)

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem that involves people from all different countries and backgrounds. The International Labour Organization estimates that human trafficking is a global business worth approximately $150 billion and affects over 20 million people including men, women, and children. Contrary to popular belief, human trafficking does not just occur across international borders. Not only are people trafficked into the United States (U.S.), but U.S. citizens are also heavily recruited.

Although human trafficking is gaining traction in terms of growing awareness and services in the social work community, very rarely do we hear about “athletic trafficking.” Youth overseas are enticed to travel to the U.S. through the lure of playing high school sports which could eventually lead them to earning a free ride to college or making the pros. Cases are starting to pop up around the country that provide a glimpse into athletic trafficking in the U.S.:

  • 2011. Three athletes were recruited from Nigeria to play for a NBA youth league and were instead taken to play for a high school in Mississippi with little food and poor living conditions. They were later sent to live and play for a coach in Arkansas.

  • 2015. 30 young boys in Georgia were recruited from the Dominican Republic and lived in a school gym for three years.

  • 2016. An investigation found fraudulent documents of a Nigerian student attending a North Carolina high school who played football and basketball.

  • 2017. Eight athletes, both males and females, were recruited to play for a New Jersey high school basketball powerhouse. The boy’s basketball coach was a temporary guardian for at least five players from Puerto Rico and Nigeria. It was believed that the athletes were moved across several states before landing in New Jersey.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which was reauthorized several times, defines human trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. This year, Polaris developed a report on the Typology of Modern Day Slavery that made reference to trafficking within recreational facilities. Yet they missed the mark on athletic trafficking, as it only described labor trafficking for those working in amusement parks, summer camps, golf courses, and community swimming pools. So, is there such a thing as athletic trafficking? Based on what we’ve seen with athletic trafficking, it seems to meet all the criteria:

  • Athletes are recruited with the promise of a better future;

  • Athletes are transported to new locations, often in isolation and without adequate resources;

  • Athletes are forced to play their sport for countless hours for the benefit of others;

  • Athletes are under full control of their caretaker, arguably their trafficker

We are just barely scraping the surface when it comes to learning about athletic trafficking. We don’t know the details of the cases listed above. We don’t know how many more athletic programs are recruiting athletes overseas illegally under false pretenses. And we don’t know how many athletes are currently suffering from coercive and abusive treatment. This is especially concerning in the present context due to recent immigration reforms. Without acknowledging victims of athletic trafficking through clear policies, they could inevitably face deportation. I urge social workers and sports fans to learn the red flags of human trafficking in sports to protect athletes from home and abroad.

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