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The Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Myth: Is it the crisis it's cracked up to be?

With testosterone, alcohol and cash everywhere, lurid tales of a booming vice business are a recurring theme of Super Bowl week. But while sex-trafficking is a serious issue nationwide, the big game's role in driving it may be overblown.

Oh, man, we’re about to get robbed.

That was Ryan Murphy’s thought when the two sedans ominously pulled up on either side of the car he was sitting in. From the front passenger’s seat of the Ford Fusion parked at a gas station, he breathed a sigh of resignation and reached for his wallet. Growing up in Oakland, he had seen this maneuver before and figured he knew what was coming.

It was Feb. 2, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif., and Murphy had had designs on enjoying his off-day. A safety on the Broncos’ practice squad, he was with the team for Super Bowl 50, though he knew he wouldn’t dress for the game. On this Tuesday he planned to catch a ride back to his hometown, an hour or so away, and surprise his mother and grandmother with tickets.

When his teammate from high school, Greg Peirson, picked him up at the Santa Clara Marriott, Murphy noticed a woman in the backseat. Murphy says they didn’t speak, deciding that the less he knew, the better. “I didn’t know if it was a girlfriend or maybe a side chick,” he says. “I figured he’d drop her off and we’d get home.” After driving a few miles they pulled up to a gas station, adjacent to a Motel 6. The woman got out; Murphy assumed it was to buy a snack or use the restroom. After a few minutes, the two other cars boxed in Murphy and his friend.

Two men dressed in plainclothes ordered Murphy out of the vehicle, flashing badges and yelling, “Hands up.” As other officers followed on foot and began to search the car, a woman emerged from a nearby van. It was Lisa Guerrero of Inside Edition—who ironically had once been a Monday Night Football sideline reporter—brandishing a microphone and asking Murphy for comment. Murphy recalls, “It went from Am I getting robbed? to Am I getting punk’d?

The answer: neither. Murphy was put in handcuffs and detained for questioning as part of Operation Charlie Brown, an undercover prostitution sting deployed in conjunction with Super Bowl 50. Police believed that the woman in the car was a sex worker, and that the two men with her were aiding in her prostitution. She—or an agent of hers—had placed a sexually suggestive ad on that was answered by an undercover officer working for the Santa Clara County Human Trafficking Task Force. In such an “in-call sting,” the police arrive at the arranged meeting place, detain the woman and, says Lieut. Kurtis Stenderup of the Santa Clara police department, “try to find out who their exploiter is, who’s their pimp, who’s controlling them, taking their money, beating them, doing all that human trafficking.” In this case, when officers asked the woman who had dropped her off she pointed to the car in the gas station. They found her phone and clothes on the backseat, and Murphy’s friend was arrested for “aiding in prostitution,” a misdemeanor under California Penal Code 653.23(a)(1).

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Murphy spent a half hour in cuffs, using his black hoodie to try to hide his face and the NFL players’ pass around his neck from the Inside Edition camera. Then he was released without being cited. On the video, a plainclothes officer says explicitly, “Mr. Murphy was not involved.”

But by then it was too late. Branded as an “Inside Edition exclusive,” the titillating story of an NFL player “detained by police during an undercover Super Bowl prostitution sting” proved irresistible. By Tuesday night the Broncos issued a release stating that Murphy had been sent home.

In press conferences and news releases, agencies from local sheriff's offices to the FBI congratulated themselves for the successful undercover operations timed to the Super Bowl, leading to more sensational headlines: “Super Bowl Sex-Trade Crackdown Nets 200 Arrests, 14 Underage Girls Rescued,” claimed The CBS San Francisco affiliate trumpeted, “Super Bowl 50 Plagued By Prostitution, Human Trafficking.” Anti-trafficking groups rode the headlines, using the task force operation—and the NFL player briefly detained—as an opportunity to draw attention to their cause. “Murphy’s presence at the sting goes to show that all types of people are involved, from the low-end to the high-end status,” Nita Belles, managing director of In Our Backyard, said in a statement.

Murphy was left to explain to family and friends why his name was crawling across their TV screens in a most unflattering context. Messed-up situation was the phrase he put into heaviest rotation. As he watched from home in Denver while his team won the Super Bowl, Murphy was angry and embarrassed and, maybe above all, confused. At the time, anyway, he didn’t appreciate that he was collateral damage in the annual ritual that already had its own shorthand: the Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Myth.

Super Bowls are, of course, held in different regions, in different cultural pockets and in different climates; they also involve different teams. Still, there are constants, and with pregame flyovers and extended halftime shows, this has also become a reliable part of the tableau: predictions about the upcoming surge in local sex trafficking, followed by large-scale sting operations to combat it.

Before Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, Greg Abbott—then Texas’s attorney general and now the state’s governor—referred to the Super Bowl as “the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” Along with the FBI, the attorney general’s office enlisted almost two dozen others to investigate and arrest pimps and johns who used underage girls. The next year in Indianapolis, one local group reportedly enlisted 150 volunteers to hand out bars of soap emblazoned with messages such as Are you witnessing young girls being prostituted? Indiana governor Mitch Daniels asked legislators to tighten laws, increasing penalties for those convicted. “We must do it in time for the Super Bowl,” Daniels said. When New Jersey hosted Super Bowl XLVIII, congressman Chris Smith said, “We know from the past, any sports venue, especially the Super Bowl, acts as a sex-trafficking magnet.” Before the next big game, in Glendale, Ariz., Cindy McCain—wife of senator John McCain—declared the Super Bowl “the largest human-trafficking venue on the planet.”

Intuitively, it makes sense that a gathering of tens of thousands—disproportionately male; disproportionately monied—for an event based on excess could lead to an influx of sex trafficking. Many people can, and do, debate the ethics of prostitution and of adults’ trading consensual sex for money. (Almost half of all Americans believe that sex work should be legalized and that prostitution, usually a misdemeanor, should be decriminalized.) On the other hand, the more serious crime of sex trafficking—federal definition: “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act”—is, indisputably, an act of evil.

Yet the evidence that the arrival of a Super Bowl correlates with an increase in trafficking ranges from fuzzy to nonexistent. The few statistics regarding arrests made in and around the game often conflate prostitution and coercive sex trafficking. Reports can be misleading. After the 2014 Super Bowl, New Jersey authorities announced that antitrafficking efforts “recovered 16 children between the ages of 13 and 17 and arrested more than 45 pimps and their associates in Super Bowl–related activities.” The release did not mention that this abnormally high figure was culled from a tristate area and backdated to months preceding the kickoff. And the statistics rarely account for the targeted increase in enforcement resources. What would the arrest numbers be if these sprawling, multiagency sting operations were launched in, say, August, and not in January?

Stenderup says that in the three weeks before Super Bowl 50, the Human Trafficking Task Force made 43 arrests of johns, two human trafficking arrests and six arrests for aiding in or loitering for prostitution. Which sounds like a lot, until he notes: "We actually were able to contact more sex workers and had more john arrests in one day in October [2016] than we did during a three-week period leading up the Super Bowl."

As Kate Mogulescu, founder and supervising lawyer of the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project at the Legal Aid Society in New York City, says, “There’s no place for comprehensive and accurate data.” (Says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, “We have not done our own research on hard data after Super Bowls, but we work closely with local law enforcement and groups on this issue.”) Still, thanks to the media crush that doesn't exist on a day in October—the kind of crush that invites Inside Edition on a ride-along—the story line overcomes the absence of statistical support.

And the story line is not unique to the Super Bowl or to the U.S. Name a major sporting event and, inevitably, you’ll find publicity warning of a spike in sex trafficking. But, again, the empirical case is a hard one to make. In 2011 the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, a group of nongovernmental organizations, published a report examining the record on sex trafficking related to World Cup soccer games, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. The paper concluded: “Despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”

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A 2016 Carnegie Mellon study examined online sex worker advertisements placed in conjunction with large events. The researchers found there is an increase in sexually suggestive classified ads on websites during Super Bowl week. For instance, at Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, 43 additional ads were placed; at Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey there were 16. But this did not account for ads placed by police as part of sting operations. It was never determined whether the ads were answered or acted upon. And this uptick for the Super Bowl has been roughly in keeping with increases seen at other large events, from South by Southwest in Austin to the Arizona State Fair to Memorial Day Weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Sometimes, the sporting event doesn't need to be major to sound the alarm. EXPERTS SAY DRAKE RELAYS BRING SPIKE IN HUMAN TRAFFICKING, read a 2015 headline on The accompanying story made the claim that the annual college track and field competition in Iowa doubles as “an opportunity for criminals to make money offering young women for sex” and also “draw[s] a darker side to Des Moines.” Which would be horrible ... if, in fact, it were so. Neither the news reports nor the Iowa authorities provided data supporting the claim.


Why, with such scant evidence, does the Super Bowl Sex Trafficking narrative persist? And why are extensive resources being devoted to these sting operations? For starters, they are typically not dangerous and pass a basic risk/reward test. A generation ago, they might entail trailing a suspected pimp and descending on a motel or a residence. As the commercial sex industry has shifted online, enforcement has followed suit. Most stings entail answering online ads, or posing as pimps—so-called "out-call" operations—and placing fake ads.

And safe as these stings are operationally, they are comparably safe politically; there are no vocal, pro-sex-trafficking movements. Indiana's 2011 bill, drafted before the Super Bowl? It passed unanimously. Earlier this month, shut down its “adult” advertising section as a U.S. Senate subcommittee held hearings to discuss tightening the law. As The Village Voice, an early skeptic of what it calls “The Super Bowl Prostitution Hoax,” wrote in ’12, “America’s political class is simply too invested in the Super Bowl hooker myth.”

There’s also the benefit of publicity. With thousands of media members in town for the Super Bowl—and often desperate for content—what better time to draw attention to a serious issue? Asked about the issue in 2011, McCarthy, the NFL spokesman, said to the Voice that the alleged spike in trafficking around the Super Bowl was “urban legend.” He had pivoted by ’14: “We were pleased to learn that the grave concerns about human trafficking and prostitution were not realized. Federal, state and local law enforcement deserve the credit for keeping host cities safe.... To further illustrate our support of law enforcement’s efforts to combat human trafficking when there are ‘special events,’ the league’s security department hosted a meeting in September of the supervisory command staff of the Violent Crimes Against Children Section of the FBI.” Indeed, the prevailing sentiment goes something like this: Even if it’s not the isolated crisis it’s cracked up to be, what’s the harm in treating it like one?

Plenty, say some advocacy groups. The Global Alliance Against Traffic In Women makes the case that by focusing on the sex trade, authorities are taking resources that could be used to investigate other abuses. “There’s a lot of pressure on law enforcement to do something about human trafficking,” says Mogulescu. “But the only thing that law enforcement knows how to do is utilize the same methods that have been in place forever—sweep everyone up in antiprostitution policing, and then somehow assert that this is being done in the name of combating human trafficking.”

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Even confined to sex trafficking, it’s unclear that targeting enforcement around large events is an optimal strategy. According to Stenderup, in 2016, the vast majority of men cited for purchasing sex in Santa Clara County were local residents. The vast majority of the female sex workers contacted were from outside the county. This suggests that trafficking is a real occurrence; it also suggests that the clients are not out-of-town visitors. “I would argue that sex trafficking occurs all the time regardless of major sporting events,” Stenderup says. “If we had the resources all the time we could make a very significant dent in this problem.”

Rebecca Bender, a former sex-trafficking victim, believes there is a connection between big sporting events and sex trafficking. She also contends that traffickers seek men with disposable income, away from home. But the epicenter is not the site of the game; the enforcement resources would be better deployed in Las Vegas. “In Vegas, you would go from Super Bowl party to Super Bowl party, 10 men in a room, all of them wanting sexual favors, and all having $1,000 winnings to put in the pot,” says Bender, who worked under duress in Nevada until she escaped in 2007. She adds that it's not just the Super Bowl. Other major sports events mean big business for traffickers. “March Madness is a huge trafficking event [in Vegas] and not one person talks about it,” Bender says.

While Houston’s preparations for Super Bowl LI include putting reserve beds on hold at shelters for potential victims of trafficking, there are signs that the Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Myth might be splintering. Minal Davis, the special adviser to the mayor on human trafficking, believes that the “sensationalistic” approach at previous Super Bowls “hurts the messaging” and minimizes the severity. “We need an emphatic yes to a multiyear, multipronged strategy to address the issue,” she says. “[Otherwise] people lose interest. Their passion dies away with the event.”


This measured approach comes a year too late for Murphy. He recalls the events of last February as “one of the worst experiences of my life.” After the DA’s office filed misdemeanor charges against Greg Peirson, SI reached out to him, but he declined to comment. The case is still pending. The woman was not arrested. She was offered “life services”—including food and shelter—but she declined and was released at the scene.

Speaking from Denver, where he’s lived since 2015, the 24-year-old Murphy says that he has no hard feelings toward the Broncos, who re-signed him onto the team’s 90-man roster and kept him periodically through last fall. (That Denver kept him on payroll for months after the embarrassment suggests the team realized the overcooked headlines did not reflect reality.) The Giants signed him onto their practice squad in December. Murphy understands that, in the age of Ray Rice, teams are going to balk at signing him.

“I basically feel like some teams kind of look at me like, Oh, he’s a troublemaker,” he says. “I’m not. And I wasn’t that day. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it was made a story. The media ran with it. And there was nothing I could do to stop it.”