Rise of the Champions

I grew up in a household of athletics.  My parents are both University of Michigan graduates and my father is a former basketball player for the Wolverines.  I grew up 2o minutes from the Ann Arbor campus, where football at the “Big House” is something of a religion.  My brother, always an incredible athlete, seemed a natural on any court, turf or field, but I was usually dragged reluctantly from my book or piano to participate.

Though I may never have personally enjoyed the sweat of the game, I have always loved great sport stories. Like the comeback of “Cinderella Man” boxer James Braddock. Or Kerri Strug sticking her landing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Of the 28 record Olympic medals of Michael Phelps.  Or the true iron-men Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son of Team Hoyt. Sports give us triumphs of the human spirit, these rare, perfect moments of skill, tenacity, and heart.

It broke my heart to learn, however, these same global sporting events offer opportunity for stories of a different, far more sinister nature.

Like those of the thousands of migrant workers from Bangledesh, India, Nepal and elsewhere who’ve been stripped of their passports and trapped in dangerous slave labor to construct the new stadium and facilities for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It is projected that the death toll could reach up to 4,000 laborers by 2022.

Or of the young teen girls rescued from a sex-trafficking ring leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero.  Of the women and children rescued and perpetrators arrested for sex trafficking every year at sporting events across the country, including the Final Four tournament, NASACAR races, and the Masters Golf Tournament.  Already this week in metro Atlanta, 33 people have been arrested and four victims rescued in the lead up to this weekend’s Super Bowl.

These stories are not meant to obscure the issue that trafficking is a 365-days-a-year problem.  That forced labor and sexual exploitation of men, women and children occur not only around these major events, but daily. Trafficking is a long-term, complex problem requiring year-round attention.  But the alchemy between these athletic events and trafficking is potent and the stories that result hold both power and purpose.

Just like the story of Efe Obada. Nigerian-born Obada was trafficked with his sister at the age of 10 from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom. He survived homeless on the streets of London as a child until he was taken in by social services. He discovered American football for the first time at the age of 22.  He went on to be chosen as one of four players to participate in the NFL’s International Pathway Program.  And the only one to make a final 53-man roster as a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers.

At their best, sports offer redemption, an arena to prove yourself and find the warrior within, to push beyond pain to something deeper. That’s why its champions have such a penchant to make us feel.  This Super Bowl, root for your team and for the power of underdogs everywhere in whatever battle they may be facing. Cheer as the survivor finds the strength to rise up.

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