Heroes Both On and Off the Field
Football and human trafficking - chances are, when you see those two things side by side, your thoughts take a dark turn. Most of us have heard about the connection between sporting events (and any large gathering of people, for that matter) and human trafficking. What you may not have heard about, however, are the efforts NFL coaches and players are making on behalf of the fight against modern-day slavery.
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin, Cleveland Browns former head coach, Hue Jackson, and NFL players Trey Burton, Max Garcia and others have all decided to use their positions as prominent sports figures to promote awareness of human trafficking.
Chicago Bears tight end, Trey Burton, is donating to the International Justice Mission $1,000 for every catch and $2,500 for every touchdown he scores in the 2018 season.
He told reporters, “I don’t think anybody believes children should have to suffer this, and on top of that, they prey on the poor. … So we’re going to do our best to raise awareness and funds for it, as well.”
In 2017, six members of the NFL traveled to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, with IJM’s Team Freedom initiative. The purpose of their visit was to learn about child slavery and to make connections with the young survivors they met.
In an interview with CNN, Garcia, who was one of the athletes in Santo Domingo, explained his work with IJM by saying, “When the lights are off and you're not famous anymore, you're going to look back and say: ‘What did I do?’"
Similarly, Coach Tomlin journeyed to Haiti in order to learn more about the work being done by Operation Underground Railroad, an organization dedicated to rescuing enslaved children both in the U.S. and abroad. He was so impressed by what he saw that he invited the organization’s founder Tim Ballard to speak at the Steelers training camp, and wrote the foreword to Ballard’s book Slave Stealers.
“I just had an opportunity to grow immensely with what I’ve been able to see and what I’ve been able to help with,” Tomlin said of this experience in a recent news conference.
Former Coach Jackson has made the fight even more personal, establishing the Hue Jackson Foundation, with his wife, Michelle. This nonprofit promotes awareness and education, as well as provides funding to organizations dedicated to supporting survivors of human trafficking. In 2017, the foundation partnered with the Salvation Army to open a safe house in Cleveland for women rescued from slavery.
In a January 2018 interview, he said, “We [Jackson and Michelle] know exactly what this [human trafficking] has done to families through our experiences and things that we’ve seen. We wanted to make sure that we could be a part of something that would really make a difference in this world.”
I spoke with Kimberly Diemert, a former private investigator who is now executive director of the Hue Jackson Foundation. She explained to me that the organization offers far more than housing: “We’ve got a multi-faceted mission statement. We provide education, awareness, training and services to victims and survivors of human trafficking.”
Through the foundation’s training, local civic organizations and schools learn the basic fundamentals of human trafficking. It also helps businesses formulate policies and procedures specific to their industries.
“We don’t just address the issues of human sex trafficking. We also address the issues of labor trafficking,” she said.
In addition, the foundation is engaged with local and state lawmakers, helping to enact appropriate legislation to protect victims and punish both consumers of trafficked human beings and the traffickers.
“We are literally approaching this from every avenue conceivable.”
While the Hue Jackson Foundation is operating solely in Ohio right now, they have much bigger dreams.
Diemert shared, “We’re taking our program national, and part of that national exposure will involve the NFL. Our goal is to meet with the commissioner of the NFL and help bring education and awareness to the NFL in its entirety. Once we get the NFL engaged, we hope to take this to the NBA, MLB, soccer and NASCAR. We’re looking at this as a global initiative.
There’s a lack of understanding and knowledge of the realities of human trafficking. What I would like most is for people to open their minds first and then open their hearts and realize no human being is born into the world saying ‘I want to be a victim of human trafficking.’”
Sports figures are often celebrated for the work they do on the field, court, arena or racetrack. It’s time we recognized that much of the work they do outside of sports venues is deserving of praise, as well. Many of them are using the NFL as a platform to shine a light on a very ugly crime that is all too often swept into the shadows. By using their star power to highlight human trafficking, they aren’t just scoring touchdowns - they’re changing lives.
About the Author
Jeanette Bouchie is an adult services librarian at the Vigo County Public Library, where she has worked for 18 years. She is also a freelance writer and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Dressember to increase awareness of human trafficking. She also enjoys reading, tap dancing, traveling, getting dressed up, and attending the occasional comic con.