The baseball season is upon us once again. Fans are pouring into stadiums to cheer their favorite teams, while sports writers wax poetic on the rejuvenating powers of a new season, freshly mown baseball fields, and the simple joys of a day at the ball park. Every spring, baseball offers us the hope of fresh starts, clean air and sunshine, and an unapologetic opportunity to enjoy hotdogs and beer.
Few fans would ever suspect a connection between baseball and the dark world of human trafficking; where victims are exploited through their labor, or commercial sex acts, by means of force, fraud, or coercion. Fewer still would suspect we can learn two valuable lessons about the complexities of human trafficking when viewed through the prism of America’s favorite pastime.
The first lesson we can learn is that anyone—even professional athletes—can be exploited when a trafficker instills fear in their victim.
Last February, certified Major League Baseball Player Association agent Bart Hernandez was indicted in federal court on charges of human trafficking and conspiracy, stemming from his alleged involvement in bringing Cuban baseball players into the United States who, in some cases, have received lucrative contracts. The indictment focuses on the case of Seattle Mariners center fielder Leonys Martin. Hernandez allegedly conspired with others to hold Martin and his family hostage while he negotiated Martin’s first MLB contract. Hernandez may have also coerced Martin into signing a contract which paid Hernandez a much higher agent fee than is usual. If true, Hernandez profited through Martin’s labor (playing baseball), after using force, fraud, or coercion to gain Martin’s compliance. This is human trafficking. If Hernandez is found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison. Lest we think this is an isolated case, associates of Hernandez are already serving time in federal prison for similar offenses.
Though trafficking cases involving professional athletes are rare, it illustrates an important concept in combating modern slavery: Human trafficking is limited only by the imagination of the trafficker, and the trafficker’s coercive skill in manipulating their victim through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. If true, Hernandez invented a ploy to exploit a talented baseball player, and by separating Martin from his family and then holding them hostage forced Martin into signing a contract favorable to Hernandez. Martin, a highly skilled athlete, may have been victimized while on the path to playing in the major league—just as other talented and smart people have fallen victim to traffickers.
The second connection we can make between baseball and human trafficking is examining the level of performance that equates with success. Major league players who can maintain a .250 batting average (getting a hit 1 in 4 times at bat) will likely have a successful career, given they possess the requisite defensive skills. A batter with a .300 average will be among a team’s better hitters. “Success,” in the case of a batter, equates with failing far more often than actually achieving their goal of getting a hit. This success rate is quite similar to those who assist victims of human trafficking, especially those who have been victimized through commercial sexual exploitation.
It is an unfortunate reality that many victims of trafficking do not immediately embrace those who offer to help them, whether law enforcement or victim services providers. Victims are often emotionally bound to their exploiter through the same fear that was used to exploit them, through a misconceived notion of “love” for their exploiter, or because the victim lacks trust in the social and legal systems that have failed to protect them in the past.
Ask a police officer or victim advocate experienced in working with sex trafficking victims how often they are successful in removing a trafficking victim from “the life” of forced commercial sex, and they will likely answer 1 in 4. Professionals skilled in working with sex trafficking victims achieve success the same percentage of time as batters. Sadly, it is not uncommon for the same victim to have multiple contacts with professionals who are ready, willing, and able to help, before they accept it. Tragically, some never do.
But does this stop the police officer, victim advocate, or community activist from continually going to bat for victims of modern slavery? Of course not. Dedicated professionals—just like the athletes who play on emerald fields under a spring sun—accept that success comes in a minority of their attempts. Abolitionists who oppose trafficking in all its form are not defeated by success rates of 1 in 4; they rejoice in it. And like the baseball player who “hits for average,” they take pride in the singles and doubles they hit, yet rarely experience the thrill of a home run.
The response to human trafficking, like baseball, is much more complex than it appears. The trafficking victim advocate, and batter, employs a nuanced approach to increase their chances of success, if only to a small degree. But they are both professionals in their tasks—in responding to human trafficking, and baseball—and they are the heart of the game. Their tenacity, not their high average, is their star quality. They are diligent, consistent, and dependable. And they take pride in their success, even if only a quarter of the time they step to the plate. We applaud them both!