The past few years have brought many issues surrounding internships to the forefront of the public consciousness. However, much like the controversies involving the amateur status of student-athletes in the NCAA, the prevailing conversation seems to always revolve around whether interns are entitled to compensation. Although important for many reasons, the topic of compensation tends to draw away from the other issues existing in each system. This often turns discussions into a frivolous debate on whether the youth have become too entitled rather than addressing the balance of power in these contexts and the vulnerability of amateur athletes or sport management students, who are advised to repeatedly work for free while networking and guarding their reputation.
In addition to an ongoing debate on compensation, amateurism and internships share several historical similarities. Internships, like amateurism, stem from a 19th century concept that has been borrowed and adapted from its original source. Also like amateurism, internships benefit the privileged and assigned inferior status to those not in power. While I am not advocating for the eradication of amateurism or internships, I believe studying the history of each of these helps to frame the conversations and bring forward the underlying issues that must be addressed. It helps us understand that many of these issues are not new and not unique to our domain. The past few years have seen momentum growing for changing the NCAA’s definition of amateurism, but we in the field of sport management have not been quite as proactive when it comes to internships.
The idea of a student performing closely supervised work as part of their training has been enthusiastically adopted by other fields in the 20th century. However, surveying the use of the term internship across professions makes the definition of an internship difficult to peg. This lack of standardization often leads to great opportunities for forward-thinking and creative people who can offer to become an intern for an organization that is not hiring, but it also limits progress in many ways.
Doctoral internships in psychology are rigidly structured with mandates on content and the number of hours a week a student must receive didactic supervision and much more. On the other hand, the term is used by many organizations in politics, journalism, fashion, media, and sport as a temporary or flexible position or as an extended recruitment and selection process with no consistent standards as far as university involvement, duration, number of hours per week, role of the site supervisor, or expected outcomes. Without some amount of standardization any conversation about internships, practicum, field experiences, fellowships, residencies, or any other long-term experiential learning will be inherently limited.
However, as evidenced by the reports of abuse, discrimination and harassment in the medical field, the standardization of internship criteria alone would not resolve many of the issues potentially facing interns in the sport industry. Fortunately, there have been some changes at the local level, and movement at the federal level to protect unpaid interns from some of the abuses since they do not benefit from the protections of employment law. But paid or not, all interns are still vulnerable in other ways.
We, as a field, must begin to evaluate our participation in the process, both through our offering of course credit for internships and our direct relationship with organizations that offer not-for-credit internships that keep people bouncing from organization to organization trying to “break in” to the industry. This conversation may involve the question of compensation, but it should be more comprehensive. We should question all of our practices and assumptions involving why we have internships and how they are operated. And most importantly, whether we strive for some sort of standardization or not, we should be sure to aim for an ethical system that acknowledges the position students and graduates are in when they sign up for an internship.