In this episode of the HJ Talks About Abuse podcast, host Alan Collins and colleague Feleena Grosvenor discuss the topic of abuse in sport.
We do so in the wake of the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) 2020 report which is published annually and measures countries’ efforts to comply with the “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” based on a tier ranking system.
The United States considers “trafficking in persons,” “human trafficking,” and “modern slavery” to be interchangeable umbrella terms that refer to both sex and labour trafficking. It encompasses involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labour.
The US’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (“TVPA”) defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:
sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labour or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
There have been in recent years very high profile child sex abuse cases in sport, and in the UK football in particular. The 2020 report although a US government publication has world-wide reach and is thought-provoking because we do not necessarily equate sport with slavery.
The report paints in stark colours the reality and makes the obvious point that many people around the world dream of becoming professional athletes, drawn by the fame, multi-million-dollar contracts, lucrative brand sponsorships, and opportunities to travel around the world. The growing number of young players aspiring to become professional athletes and the potential to sign the next greatest deal inevitably draws human traffickers looking to profit from the exploitation of players’ dreams. Human traffickers feature in many walks of life and so why would sport be any different? The often insufficient oversight by sport governing bodies and lack of government enforcement further allows unscrupulous agents to operate.
According to the 2020 report, a common scenario is where sports agents approach poor families with an offer to arrange for a child to train at a street-side academy, sports club, or school, with the promise of signing the child with a professional team. Many of these families will do whatever it takes to meet the agent’s price. In cases where the agent does arrange for the children’s admittance and travel to a club or school, typically for a fee of thousands of dollars, the children often find themselves in situations that increase their vulnerability to predatory behaviours. And we know too well from the recent football cases in the UK how young boys became vulnerable to predatory coaches and the like.
The report shockingly reveals how some unscrupulous agents immediately abandon the children while in transit or after arrival at the destination. Other agents, who are actually traffickers, have a longer-term scheme, where they vie to establish themselves within young athletes’ circle of trust and instil a sense of dependency as early as possible. This is akin to what we know as grooming and in a previous podcast, we discuss the psychological damage this causes.
The report goes on to explain that if players fail to live up to expectations and advance to the next level in the sport, the agent abandons them without means to return home. If abandoned abroad, players often remain in the country undocumented not knowing how to contact family and friends or too afraid to do so because of a strong sense of shame and self-blame. This lack of resources, guidance, and social support increases their vulnerability to traffickers and may lead to dependency and further exploitation.
For players offered a position on a team, according to the report the traffickers posing as agents have already established a relationship with the athlete and are well-positioned to control the course of the athlete’s career. In numerous cases, the traffickers have compelled or tricked athletes into signing exploitative contracts with major kickback schemes that bind the athletes to the agent. These agents often maintain control of athletes’ travel and identity documents to prevent them from leaving, or they exploit a debt amassed from previous fees or interest on loans to keep the athlete in a state of debt-based coercion. This is arguably akin to slavery if not, in fact, modern-day slavery. For the athletes who have dedicated their lives to sign a contract, the fear of losing the opportunity by questioning the terms of that contract or their so-called agent can be insurmountable. Once the contract is signed, the trafficker finally has the control needed to extort as much as possible from the athlete. Even after becoming more established, athletes may feel it is too risky to challenge the terms of a contract or seek other representation out of fear their situation would cause shame, ruin their reputation, or jeopardize their future.
While traffickers tend to target children and youth, they also approach young adults. In these instances, following the same plan of signing an exploitative contract if the player is selected or abandonment upon failure. In either scenario, the player is at heightened risk of human trafficking. When legal migration avenues to countries with premier leagues are difficult or do not exist, the draw of a trafficker’s promise of success is even more compelling.
To quote from the report: Within Europe’s soccer industry alone, it is estimated there are 15,000 human trafficking victims each year. The migration patterns vary by sport, but the exploitative scheme of recruiting, building trust and dependency, and taking control upon a job offer is universal. The confluence of athletes’ desire to play, their families’ hopes of escaping poverty, agents’ desire to profit, leagues’ interest in marketing competitive players and games, and teams’ eagerness to find young talent all create an environment that, if left unregulated, could be ripe for traffickers to exploit.
Yet neither governments nor international sports federations or national sports leagues have successfully addressed the growing incidence of human trafficking of athletes. As professional sports leagues have become increasingly globalized, multilateral and regional bodies have started incorporating protection of athletes in sports integrity and anti-corruption initiatives; however, government and industry efforts to regulate an expanding web of migration and recruitment routes have proven insufficient.
The 2020 report does report on preventative actions being taken by governments around the world and rates each country accordingly. Progress in detection and prevention does vary and it is apparent that much more needs to be done to address, if not eradicate this miserable trade in young people.
The report calls for a more systematic and standardized approach given the global nature of the sports industry and decentralized structure of many associations. Greater pressure on teams and their scouts is needed to conduct more due diligence on the agents they work with to ensure their talent acquisition is free of exploitation. It is also suggested that governments could do more for example by ensuring greater public awareness. Further that there should be greater oversight and regulation in this area, with a role to be played by governments and governing bodies.