Sports Internships: Paid vs. Unpaid

The debate over unpaid internships has been louder this summer than I ever remember, and I figured it would only be a matter of time before someone discussed the issue in the sports industry. This morning, Kristi Dosh (aka SportsBizMiss) hosted a conversation on Twitter that turned into a rather heated debate. I responded via Twitter, but 140 characters can’t do justice to how I feel about this topic.

I worked four internships during my college career: two as an undergraduate and two as a graduate student. Three were in sports and one was for a museum. Only one was paid, and if I had the opportunity to go back and do everything over again, I wouldn’t even consider giving one of them up. Do I wish the other three had been paid? Could I have used the extra cash? Sure, but even if they had been paid, both the experience and the resume-building I received would have far outweighed the short-term financial reward.

Two of the main arguments against unpaid internships are that companies are taking advantage of free labor and that unpaid internships automatically exclude those who cannot afford to work for free. The second point in particular I agree is a problem; however, eliminating unpaid internships will mostly serve to reduce the number of internships offered. I think a different solution is needed to address that issue, but in the meantime I believe there are ways to make unpaid internships work, even without a great financial support system.

Since I attended grad school four years after finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I was at two different stages in my life, financially speaking, when I worked my internships. As an undergraduate, I was the oldest daughter of a father who struggled financially and sacrificed greatly just to help send me to the college of my choice. As a graduate student, I was a newly married 26-year-old who gave up full-time employment to make my dream of working in sports come true. Here’s how I made it work:

Not having an internship during the summer between my junior and senior year of college was not an option for me. I viewed this as something that was imperative to my chances of landing a job after graduation. Yet even as I applied for position after position the spring semester of my junior year, my father and I had numerous conversations about what the logistics would be. Many of the positions I applied for were unpaid. Ideally an internship in my hometown would be most affordable, but I attended school out of state, and was having better luck getting interviews there. How would we manage an unpaid, full-time position for me, especially if I was not living at home?

I had started working literally on my 16th birthday (not counting the babysitting since age 12). My dad drove me around to fill out job applications a couple weeks before my birthday, and when the local supermarket called me in for an interview right away, I was so afraid that I had blown my chances when they realized I hadn’t even turned 16 yet. Ever since then, my paycheck had been part of paying for the family expenses, especially the cost of attending college. Even with scholarships and grants and maxed-out student loans, we still had more tuition bills to pay.

I ended up with a full-time unpaid position at a museum in Indianapolis, my boyfriend’s hometown located 45 miles north of my college. After looking at apartments and realizing there was no way that was going to work, his grandmother offered to house me for the summer in exchange for doing some household chores. I originally offered to get a part-time job on evenings and weekends, but ultimately my dad decided to spare $100 a week, which was enough to cover gas and food.

Certainly there are many less fortunate than me, whose parents cannot afford any cash to help or who don’t have anyone to board them for free. But I could have worked part-time if I had needed to, and I would have had to make a different decision as to where I could intern if I hadn’t had a place to stay. I ended up with a paid position in our campus recreational sports department as a public relations assistant during my senior year, and having those two internships on my resume as well as a binder full of portfolio pieces helped me graduate with a job offer from an advertising agency.

A few years later, with four years of marketing communications experience under my belt, I decided to pursue a career in professional sports but I had no luck in even getting interviews for jobs. I made the decision to return to school to pursue a Master’s degree in sport management, choosing an online program that would allow me to take a job anywhere if the opportunity arose. A year into the program, I was learning a lot but still not landing interviews. Then I applied for an unpaid internship.

I was 27 years old and less than two years into my marriage to my college boyfriend. I was fortunate that he had a decent job and that I could do freelance work to bring in some money as well. Still, it was a sacrifice, and one that I was not even sure would pay off, to take the job with an independent minor league baseball team 50 miles from our apartment.

My boss recognized that I was overqualified for the team’s typical internship and gave me more responsibility than the position required. I managed the schedule for all of the interns working in marketing and promotions, since we all worked part-time. I wrote game stories and press releases and served as part of the promotions crew on the field. I also did the typical menial internship work, from data entry to ticket delivery to post-game clean up.

At the end of the season, I moved straight into another unpaid position with a minor league hockey team, this one 70 miles from home. And suddenly an amazing thing happened: teams started calling me back. In the few months that followed the completion of my baseball internship, I got an interview for one out of every three jobs that I applied for. Three months later, I received two job offers on the same day.

I was bitter that the five years of real-world, non-sports marketing experience meant nothing to these teams. Even my graduate studies, which I was still nine months away from completing, weren’t enough to get me in the door. But two part-time, unpaid internships were.

For the past four years, I have been on the other side of things. As a hiring manager, I have witnessed the sheer number of applicants for internships with a sports team, both paid and unpaid. For full-time positions, it’s even greater.  I’d imagine the number of people who get a job with a team without an internship in the industry are few and far between. Yes, it puts those who cannot do an internship at a disadvantage. But rather than eliminating unpaid positions, I’d push for more financial assistance or, at the very least, guidance for those who need it.

I worry what happens if this unpaid internship movement pushes toward law. If unpaid internships go away, undoubtedly the number of internships diminish, especially in the sports industry. Already students are competing with recent graduates and others looking to make a career change across the country for a limited number of positions. What happens when there are fewer internships available?

People argue that employers are taking advantage of free labor; that paying interns is just a drop in the bucket in their overall budget. I am sure for some businesses out there, this is true. But anyone who has worked in sports knows the reality of the business. Many teams do not make money and most have very slim profit margins. If teams have to pay their interns, many will do without or at the very least reduce the number that they hire.

I think the focus in this debate should be in helping qualified candidates who cannot afford to hold unpaid positions find ways to make it work. We should also focus on making sure that internships provide valuable, educational experiences. To me, whether or not you receive credit for them, internships are as important if not more so than college classes. Yet we pay for college classes and demand pay from internships.

More than likely, none of my three unpaid internships would have existed if they were required to be paid. I know for sure neither of the two with sports teams would have been. Without them, I would not be where I am today.

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