As the eyes of the world watch the action unfolding at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, police, authorities, airlines and hotels are dealing with a sinister problem that tends to arise this time of year: human trafficking activity.
While antislavery groups are cautious to paint Super Bowl as a magnet for sex trafficking — they’re quick to point out it’s a year-round problem — the NFL championship match is often been dubbed the biggest sex trafficking event in the United States, as hundreds of thousands of cashed-up sports fans descend on the host city to celebrate the big game and, in many cases, indulge in sex services that use Super Bowl as their hook.
What’s worse is this year’s host city, Atlanta, is considered one of the biggest hubs of sex trafficking nationwide, according to WTOL News.
Anti-human trafficking groups and authorities have stepped up their efforts to bust sex rings and rescue victims. Posters have been plastered around the city bearing the faces of 16 missing girls feared to be victims of human trafficking.
Atlanta police officers have been given two hours of extra training on how to recognise and deal with human trafficking in the lead-up to Super Bowl weekend, a police spokesman told Reuters.
Police in Georgia have already arrested at least 40 people in relation to sex trafficking over the weekend, and rescued four victims.
And hotel staff and flight attendants — often regarded as the frontline defence against human trafficking — are stepping up their efforts to identify victims.
And this year, hotels have seen an unusual but hopefully effective approach.
Massive deliveries of bars of soap and makeup wipes were dropped off at hotels around Atlanta last weekend bearing a message to potential victims and a phone number to get help.
“Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted?” the black letters on the red label say, according to Reuters.
“If so, please call: 1-888-373-7888,” which is the number of the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States.
The hotline said it saw a “slight uptick” in calls around Super Bowl, CNN reported.
“We don’t believe there is a significant increase in actual trafficking cases or victimisation,” Brandon Bouchard, spokesman for Polaris, which runs the hotline, told Reuters.
“Rather it’s a change in the marketing of commercial sex services that use the Super Bowl as a hook.”
The founder of the SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) project, Theresa Flores, said hotel staff have recognised victims from missing persons posters.
“A lot of them think of this as prostitution — no, this is human trafficking,” she said.
“We’re really educating every single hotel out there.”
Delta Air Lines has a hub at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport — the world’s busiest airport.
It has been stepping up training for 56,000 staff on how to spot potential cases of human trafficking on planes and in airports.
Last month the airline also debuted a new in-flight video raising awareness of human trafficking in the lead-up to Super Bowl weekend.
“It is a global issue,” Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service Allison Ausband, who oversees flight attendants, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“With our reach (with international routes), we have the opportunity to make a difference.”