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Which NFL Players Are Supporting Sketchy Anti-Trafficking Organizations With Their Shoes?

3:02 PM EST on December 14, 2023

Nick Bawden's cleats advertising Operation Underground Railroad
Image via New York Jets

For two weeks every season, the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats campaign offers a sometimes-telling look into what players care about outside of football. Vikings kicker Greg Joseph wore cleats on Sunday supporting an Israeli food bank (“I stand with Israel” was the message emblazoned on his cleats). His teammate Josh Metellus proudly supported Pro-Choice Minnesota, a reproductive rights organization. (Metellus’s cleats had Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s face on them.) There are worthy and heart-rending and questionable causes and so, so many eponymous foundations. Several players, including Jets defensive back Bryce Hall, support organizations that appear to be crisis pregnancy centers aimed at steering women away from abortions. Raiders star Maxx Crosby is passionate about ending discrimination against pit bulls. 

At least eight players listed Christian anti-trafficking organizations as their selected cause. Though anti-trafficking has long been a popular cause for celebrities and athletes to attach themselves to, several organizations chosen by NFL players have seen major scandals this year. Two players, Jets fullback Nick Bawden and Chiefs tight end Matt Bushman, chose organizations tightly linked to Tim Ballard, the celebrity founder of Operation Underground Railroad who has been accused of sexual abuse in several lawsuits. 

Though Ballard founded OUR purportedly to conduct demi-military raids of brothels and supposed sex-trafficking camps in foreign countries—operations dramatized in the movie Sound of Freedom—the women suing him, and the ample reporting on OUR, say that he was closer to a sex trafficker himself.

“OUR only focused on allowing its celebrity founder, defendant Tim Ballard, to live the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy sex tourist and sexually manipulate and abuse employees, contractors, and volunteers under the guise of saving children,” claims a lawsuit filed last month.

Bawden, who has appeared in every game of this brutal Jets season, had custom Operation Underground Railroad cleats made for himself; these appear in a photo on the Jets website. Bushman, a practice-squad player who has only appeared in one Chiefs game this year, listed his chosen cause as The SPEAR Fund. Ballard lists himself as a "senior advisor" to SPEAR, and most of the "press room" section of SPEAR's website is devoted to denying criminal and civil allegations against Ballard. (It's unclear what operations SPEAR is presently running, if any.)

Utah attorney Suzette Rasmussen represents several of Ballard’s accusers. “It is disappointing that the NFL, which has a history of problematic behavior by some of its players against women, would allow players to represent two organizations that are synonymous with sex assaults against women,” Rasmussen told Defector. 

Ballard left Operation Underground Railroad earlier this year after several accusations of sexual abuse. The lawsuits accuse him of “coerced sexual contact” under the guise of the “couples ruse” in operations purportedly about stopping trafficking. 

“The tragic irony is not lost on these five women: that Tim Ballard literally trafficked them for his own sexual and egotistical gratification,” Rasmussen said in a statement in October, when the first lawsuit was filed accusing Ballard of sexual assault. Ballard has claimed in statements that “any suggestion of inappropriate sexual contact is categorically false” and “allies” of “evil pedophiles” will “lie about and attempt to destroy my good name.” 

The Jets, Chiefs, and NFL did not respond to several requests for comment as of publication time. Bawden's agents did not respond to a request for comment.

Bushman’s wife, Emily, told Defector that players had to select their causes at the beginning of the season and that Bushman has never been on a mission with any Ballard-linked organization.

“​​Since hearing about these allegations and lawsuits we have completely distanced ourselves from both causes,” she told Defector in an email. “Matt asked the NFL rep in charge to change the foundation on his cleats when these lawsuits were brought to light, but it seems it wasn’t changed online.”

It’s not clear how extensively Bawden was involved with Operation Underground Railroad and/or Ballard. The Jets and Bawden’s agents did not answer questions about whether the fullback has been on any operations with Ballard. Bushman is a Mormon; Ballard was accused of abusing his friendship with Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints president Russell Ballard (no relation) earlier this year. Tim Ballard “betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable,” the church said in a much-dissected statement in September.

Reporting by Anna Merlan and Tim Marchman of Vice dating at least as far back as 2020 has made it clear that OUR was, at best, a blundering and sloppy organization that, for example, relied on psychics for intelligence in planning overseas raids. (Disclosure: I previously worked with Marchman and Merlan at Gizmodo Media.) But until Ballard’s spectacular fall from grace in 2023, he was a popular figure in sports and politics. Donald Trump appointed him to the “Council to End Human Trafficking” in 2019, and OUR got a shoutout from Bryce Harper in 2020. Sound of Freedom was something like a Marvel movie for QAnon enthusiasts harboring fantasies of hunting pedophiles, with Ballard as its hero on the big screen.

Several NFL players in 2021 and 2022 supported OUR through My Cause My Cleats. “Anti-trafficking was historically seen as a really apolitical cause, something everyone could get behind, and the idea specifically of rescuing women and girls from sex trafficking was something that men in the public eye seemed drawn to,” Merlan said in an interview with Defector. (Along with Marchman, Merlan broke many of this year’s major stories about Ballard that may have stopped his Utah Senate run dead in its tracks.) 

Merlan pointed to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who went to Haiti with Ballard in 2018 to “join the search to rescue trafficked children.” Parts of their trip were filmed for an ESPN segment. “This is something that's easy to get behind. It's not in any way divisive,” Tomlin told ESPN in 2017. After the lawsuits were filed against Ballard in 2023, a Salt Lake City television station reported on the Steelers and Tomlin scurrying away from their affiliations with Ballard and OUR.

“Mike Tomlin has not been associated with their organization for several years and won't be commenting any further,” a Steelers spokesman told Fox 13 in a statement. The station also reported that the Steelers deleted a 2018 blog post in which Tomlin lavished praise on Ballard, and which quoted Tomlin writing the foreword of Ballard’s book, Slave Stealers.

“It's a bit surprising given that OUR and its founder Tim Ballard have been embroiled in a pretty ugly controversy over sexual misconduct allegations against him, and OUR's handling of them,” Merlan said of the two players supporting OUR and SPEAR this month. “But it's totally possible that these players are trying to signal that they support the post-Tim Ballard OUR; I really couldn't say.” 

Though OUR and SPEAR are justifiably in the headlines right now, at least a half-dozen other NFL players selected Christian anti-trafficking organizations as their cause. Five players are supporting International Justice Mission, long a popular cause among NFL players. The players who wore IJM’s blue cleats are the Patriots’ Matthew Slater and Hunter Henry, the Vikings’ Jordan Hicks, the Bills’ Kingsley Jonathan, and the Steelers’ Alex Highsmith. Titans wideout Nick Westbrook-Ikhine supports a Christian anti-trafficking organization called Destiny Rescue. (Hicks has been out since November with an injury; the Bills had a bye for the first My Cause My Cleats game and listed Jonathan as inactive for the second. You can see Henry’s, Slater’s, and Highsmith’s IJM cleats on their team websites.)

International Justice Mission now describes itself as “a global organization that protects people in poverty from human trafficking, modern-day slavery, violence and police abuse of power.” But it arguably pioneered the aggressive international brothel-raiding techniques that are at the core of the self-mythology of organizations like Operation Underground Railroad. Though IJM distanced itself from a 2014 OUR operation in the Dominican Republic, and it seldom receives the critical coverage it saw in the 2000s, it’s still involved in aggressive and questionable activity overseas.

In July of this year, the BBC published an investigation of an IJM-backed raid in Ghana and concluded that “IJM has removed some children from their families in cases where there was scarce-to-no evidence of trafficking and this aggressive approach may have been fueled by a target-driven culture inside IJM.” Internal IJM communications published by the BBC concluded that the cases involved contained "no elements of trafficking.” 

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