Of all the charges brought against the former U.S. gymnastics coach John Geddert on Thursday, the most alarming seemed to be the 20 counts of human trafficking.
The charges, announced by Michigan’s attorney general shortly before Mr. Geddert died by suicide, represent a creative legal strategy for prosecutors, one that experts say could set a precedent for future legal fights involving coaches in the high-pressure world of elite sports.
Although many people associate human trafficking with sexual abuse and people smuggling, its actual definition is much broader, encompassing exploitation and forced labor. That makes the term ripe for exploration in the context of abusive athletic environments.
What is human trafficking?
Under U.S. law, human trafficking is the use of “force, fraud or coercion” to obtain labor or a commercial sex act, according to the Justice Department.
Definitions of human trafficking and criminal penalties for it differ by state, but broadly speaking, trafficking focuses on “the exploitation of a person for another person’s benefit,” said Kimberly P. Jordan, a clinical professor of law at Ohio State University who specializes in child abuse and neglect.
According to Kathryn Robb, executive director of Child USAdvocacy, human trafficking can be divided into three occasionally overlapping categories: domestic servitude, forced labor and sex trafficking. In Mr. Geddert’s case, his human trafficking charges included 14 counts of forced labor resulting in injury and six counts of human trafficking a minor for forced labor.
Bringing human trafficking charges was a strategic move by prosecutors, several experts said, noting that it was not hard to see how the definition could be applied to the actions of abusive coaches who benefit financially from the success of the athletes they train.
Young athletes in particular can be vulnerable to manipulation and control when trying to reach certain goals or achieve a certain status, making them susceptible to sexual abuse and human trafficking, Ms. Robb said. (In addition to the trafficking charges, Mr. Geddert was charged with first- and second-degree criminal sexual misconduct.)
“These coaches and doctors, in the case of Larry Nassar, they have enormous power and control over these kids,” Ms. Robb said, referring to the disgraced former U.S. national team doctor who abused hundreds of girls and women. “The promise of a gold medal is quite a carrot.”
The mere fact of charging Mr. Geddert with human trafficking could have ramifications for the broader sports world, beyond just gymnastics, experts said.
“That puts coaches and trainers on notice about how they’re treating their athletes,” Professor Jordan said.
Is human trafficking the same as human smuggling?
The word “trafficking” may elicit images of movement from place to place, but transportation is not a required component of trafficking, Ms. Robb said.
“It’s a misnomer,” she said. “You do not need to transport someone for it to be considered trafficking.”
Human trafficking often is confused with human smuggling, which is a different criminal activity. While trafficking centers on exploitation, smuggling mainly involves the transportation of an individual or the use of fraudulent documents to gain illegal entry into a country.
What happens next?
On Friday, a spokesman for Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, said Ms. Nessel’s office was not continuing with its investigation into Mr. Geddert.
After a defendant facing criminal charges dies, a criminal case is pretty much moot, Professor Jordan said.
However, experts said other legal avenues, such as civil lawsuits against Mr. Geddert’s estate, remained open to possible victims.