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Editorial: The dangerously fake link between the Super Bowl and human trafficking

One of the more entrenched Super Bowl traditions is the reminder that the annual NFL championship game is linked to a spike in human trafficking. The statement is solemnly repeated by law enforcement officials, elected leaders and news outlets, although the details are left to the imagination.

The theory is that thousands of men travel to the host city, which this year is Inglewood, California, and while waiting for or recovering from the big game, they go looking for sex, which is provided by women and girls who have been forced into sexual slavery by traffickers.

It’s a myth. It has been debunked many times over, including by some leading organizations that fight trafficking. Academic studies and serious news reporting have found no connection between trafficking and the game and no uptick in trafficking activity as game day approaches.

Trafficking in human beings and compelling them into sexual activity or labor, domestically and across international borders, is a very real and serious problem that requires attention and resources to combat. But trafficking is not increased by big sporting events.

So why does this falsehood persist? And why is it repeated each year by officials and news outlets who ought to know better?

Why, for example, did L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva weigh in last month with a warning that the game “ends up being one of the major events that draws human traffickers to the region,” and why did city and state officials hold a news conference at Los Angeles International Airport to warn of trafficking connected with the event? Why are Uber drivers and hotel staff coached to look out for signs that someone is a trafficking victim? Do they have tattoos, for example, or avoid eye contact with strangers and steer clear of police, or other conduct that is perfectly normal among non-trafficked people?

Like all urban legends that just won’t die, this one appears to confirm but compartmentalize our fears. Yes, we can tell ourselves, there are monsters who enslave others for their own gain, but we know where and when to find, catch or avoid them. It’s like the fake but persistent Halloween story that pedophiles snatch trick-or-treaters from their porches. There are, indeed, people who sexually abuse children, but there’s no actual link between their crimes and Halloween. There are human traffickers, but they don’t make a beeline for the Super Bowl.

Some reasons for keeping these myths alive are seriously troubling. Panic over the sexual abuse of children and human trafficking is good for law enforcement business. It gives police an opportunity to seek more resources and to remind us that we need their services. And because police are authority figures, and because fear of crime is good for the news business as well, false or imagined threats uttered by law enforcement leaders and repeated uncritically by news outlets or even in TV dramas like “CSI” become part of a body of “copaganda” — statements that serve police interests and become commonly accepted despite their being demonstrably untrue.

Yes, the public should be reminded of the persistent problem of trafficking. But we should not allow people and institutions in positions of authority to either lie to us about Super Bowl trafficking or put forth fake stories about other supposed crimes and dangers.

Such falsehoods can lead us to misspend our resources and misplace our attention on costly but pointless Halloween police crackdowns on sex offenders, for example, and on operations to seek out human trafficking offenses at the Super Bowl but not during the rest of the year.

Insisting that public officials make the distinction between fact and fiction is crucial when truth is under very serious attack in this country. Lies about missing ballots and stolen elections can change the course of the nation. Lies about the coronavirus, vaccines and fake cures can kill. Lies about human trafficking at the Super Bowl can meld seamlessly into QAnon lies and other completely false and bizarre beliefs about a vast web of political and Hollywood elites snatching children to extract a youth-giving substance from their blood. We have to do better, especially now — when truth is so often threatened in public discourse.

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