This paper examines the importance of the internship experience in sport management curriculums and how field experiences are affected by the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The academic discipline of sport management relies heavily on internships to assist students with the application of classroom theory in professional environments, and these internships are unpaid. The FLSA does not speak specifically to unpaid internships. A review of court cases dealing with professional sport organizations suggests that adjustments need to be made to the FLSA or to sport management curriculums in order to protect student interns from unfair labor practices.

Sport Management Field Experiences: The Impact of the Federal Labor Standards Act on Internships

Business and education departments in colleges and universities across the globe have embraced the growing presence of professional and recreational sports and have implemented curriculums in the field of sport management. As the field of sport management continues to grow in the business world, the demand for qualified professionals continues to expand. According to Case (2007), over 200 graduate and undergraduate programs exist in the field of sport management, and the number of sport management programs has continued to grow at a rapid pace. In the past 2 years the number of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs in sport management has grown to a total of 309 (Scremin, 2007).

Although a key component of preparing sport management students for the real world is their progression through a sport management–specific curriculum, more research is beginning to focus on the importance of field experiences in the preparatory process (Cunningham & Sagas, 2004). A field experience can also be known as an internship, practicum, or mentorship, depending on the details of the experience and the preferences of the educational program. The field experience serves as an integral part of sport management programs (Ross & Beggs, 2007), providing an opportunity for learning that is not available in the classroom. Challenging internships that allow the student to play an active role in an organization enhance the educational value of the experience to the student (Cunningham, Sagas, Dixon, Kent, & Turner, 2005). Through them, students have the opportunity to acquire new skills while applying theories learned in the classroom. A student’s confidence will also grow when there is a sense of serving the organization in a positive manner.

While the field of sport management offers lucrative positions that may initially interest students in the industry, the reality is that they must start a sport management career at the ground level. Most of the industry positions for sport management interns are unpaid (Case, 2007). Although the primary objective of a field experience is for the student to apply theories learned in the classroom in a professional atmosphere, some educators feel that students are being taken advantage of in non-wage situations (Cunningham & Sagas, 2004). Some professional sport organizations have come under direct fire concerning their overreliance on unpaid interns. However, the labor laws in the United States do not have clear language dealing with unpaid internships.

The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the importance of field experiences in the sport management curriculum by evaluating current curricular trends at leading universities within the sport management discipline. Additionally, labor laws associated with unpaid internships and specific court cases dealing with professional sport organizations and interns will be presented.

Sport Management Program Review Council

As the sport management discipline caught hold and the academic community recognized sport management as a viable area of study, education professionals decided that curricular guidelines were needed (SMPRC, 2000). In 1987, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) developed a set of guidelines for sport management programs. Less than 2 years later, NASPE organized a task force including members of both NASPE and the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM) to continue to develop curricular guidelines. This task force is known as the Sport Management Curriculum Review Council (SMPRC). The SMPRC created a comprehensive set of guidelines that included required and recommended areas of content. Specific guidelines were made for baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral sport management degree programs. Although the initial guidelines were accepted by the majority of schools offering sport management programs, revisions to the original guidelines were made in 1999. Each SMPRC requirement for degree programs is categorized under standard areas such as “Governance in Sport” or “Marketing” (SMPRC, 2000, pp. 6, 9). For a bachelor’s degree program, the final SMPRC standard is “Field Experience in Sport Management.” The SMPRC (2000) says of the field experience that

An undergraduate student will benefit from culminating in-depth practical experience(s) before entering the sport industry. These experiences help the student bridge the gap between classroom learning and practical application in sport settings. They allow students to explore career options, develop management skills, and gain a greater understanding of the total operation of sports organizations. (p. 9)

The SMPRC requires that sport management programs must have their undergraduate students engage in a field experience.

The SMPRC has similar requirements at both the master’s and doctoral levels (SMPRC, 2000). The premise for the master’s level changes slightly, taking into account that the graduate student may already have experience working in sport management. The required further experience should be geared toward enhancing the student’s network and increasing the likelihood of job placement upon degree completion, according to the SMPRC (2000). The focus changes again at the doctoral level. The SMPRC identifies two focus paths for student internships. One is for those doctoral students who plan to teach at the college level. The internship for such students should focus on gaining experience in an educational setting, with possible tasks including teaching lower level sport management classes, conducting research, or providing supervision to undergraduate interns. The second focus path is for doctoral students who plan on being practitioners of sport management. The internship for these students should include more independent work in the industry than is demanded during undergraduate or master’s degree internships.

Curriculum Approval and Internship Requirements

Even though sport management is a growing discipline in academia, there is still a fundamental inconsistency in the programs across the country. An ongoing debate exists concerning the placement of the sport management program within an academic department. Some sport management programs are found in business departments (Overton, 2004), while others are located in physical education departments. Wherever a sport management program may be housed, its approval by the SMPRC is solely based on whether it meets curricular standards (SMPRC, 2000). Currently, 85 programs are approved by the SMPRC (NASSM, 2007), comprising only 27.5% of sport management programs in the United States. According to a study done by Scremin (2007), 22% of undergraduate sport management programs have received approval (n = 41), 24% of master’s degree programs have received approval (n = 26), and 21 % of doctoral programs have received approval (n = 3). The difference between NASSM’s and Scremin’s results (85 approved, 70 approved) illustrates that 15 additional programs have been approved by the SMPRC since July 2007.

Although the number of approved programs is only a small portion of the total number of programs, this does not seem related to a lack of internships or field experiences within the programs. Nearly 77% of sport management programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral levels have some type of internship requirement (Scremin, 2007). Scremin reported that 90% of programs at the bachelor’s level require an internship (n = 161), 65% of those at the master’s level require an internship (n = 70), and 43% at the doctoral level require an internship (n = 6). The high percentages at the bachelor’s and master’s levels represent a strong commitment to internships for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Labor Concerns and Federal Regulations

A widely debated aspect of the sport management field experience generally is compensation for student work (Foster & Moorman, 2001). Compensation is typically in the form either of academic credit or monetary wages. In academia, credit hours are usually awarded based on the number of hours required by the internship. The SMPRC requires internships to be at least 400 hours (SMPRC, 2000), for which the student usually receives at least 12 hours of academic credit. Financial compensation for field experiences is of growing concern to both universities and students, however. Most internships available in the sport industry do not offer monetary compensation to the student, although increasing debate surrounds this issue in the sport management field (Foster & Moorman, 2001). A number of professional organizations, specifically professional baseball franchises, rely on interns to be able to operate each season. The majority of these interns are unpaid, yet the franchises would not be able to operate without the interns. The question becomes not only whether such a practice is ethical, but also is it legal according to federal labor regulations?

In 1938, the federal government enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in order to establish a wage floor and protect the general public from the practice of cheap labor (FLSA Overview, 2007). At that time, the United States Congress felt that hourly workers had no protection or bargaining power vis-à-vis their employers. Without bargaining power, workers had no choice but to accept the substandard wages offered by employers, just to survive. The government felt the wages were so low that an acceptable way of living was not possible. Aside from implementing a minimum wage, the FLSA also addressed issues of overtime compensation, employee recordkeeping, and child labor.

The FLSA protects employees who work in both the public and private sectors (FLSA Overview, 2007). Currently, all companies that engage in interstate commerce and surpass $500,000 in annual sales must comply with the FLSA. (The FLSA also governs certain other companies regardless of annual revenue, including medical facilities, schools, colleges and universities, and all government agencies.) Thus most professional sport organizations and franchises are required to comply with the FLSA.

Federal Exemptions

Some sport organizations, however, have been successful in receiving exemptions from the FLSA. Under a provision of the FLSA, “seasonal and recreational establishments” can be granted an exemption upon approval (FLSA Exemption, 2007). In order to receive an exemption, the organization must satisfy half of a two-part test for seasonal or recreational character. The first part of the test requires the organization to demonstrate that it does not operate for more than 7 months in any calendar year. It is difficult for professional sport organizations to meet this requirement. The second part of the test, the seasonal receipts test, requires that an establishment illustrate that its average income for any 6 months of the previous year did not exceed one third of the average receipts for the other 6 months. This is also a difficult standard for any sport organization to meet.

FLSA Employment Classifications

Although some sport organizations do receive exemptions through the seasonal and recreational establishments clause, others who have not been exempted have found advantage in the FLSA’s lack of clarity about internships and other field experiences (FLSA Employment Status, 2007). Section 14(a) of the FLSA, for example, specifies several types of employees not protected under the act and allows lesser compensation in their cases; while interns are not among these specified employee groups, so-called learners, student-learners, and apprentices are specified in Section 14(a). The FLSA defines a learner as

[a] worker who is being trained for an occupation, which is not customarily recognized as an apprenticeable trade, for which skill, dexterity and judgment must be learned and who, when initially employed, produces little or nothing of value. Except in extraordinary circumstances, an employee cannot be considered a “learner” once he/she has acquired a total of 240 hours of job-related and/or vocational training with the same or other employer(s) or training facility(ies) during the past three years. An individual qualifying as a “learner” may only be trained in two qualifying occupations. (¶ 2)

The internship requirements of the SMPRC call for an experience of at least 400 hours (SMPRC, 2000), which exceeds the cutoff of 240 hours for learner status.

Although most sport management students would not fit the learner classification throughout a field experience, the student-learner category might seem potentially applicable (FLSA Employment Status, 2007). The FLSA defines a student-learner as

[a] student who is at least sixteen years of age, or at least eighteen years of age if employed in an occupation which the Secretary has declared to be particularly hazardous, who is receiving instruction in an accredited school, college or university and who is employed on a part-time basis, pursuant to a “bona fide vocational training program” as defined in subpart C of this part. (¶ 3)

However, the SMPRC guidelines (2000) define internships as a “full-time work experience in the sport industry (40 hours/week) that are [sic] offered for academic credit.” Therefore, if a sport management intern is enrolled in a program that has been approved by the SMPRC, that intern cannot be counted a student learner, either. The FLSA itself states that apprenticeships are not regulated by the provisions of the act (FLSA Employment Status, 2007). The FLSA defines an apprentice as

[a] worker, at least sixteen years of age unless a higher minimum age standard is otherwise fixed by law, who is employed to learn a skilled trade through a registered apprenticeship program. Training is provided through structured on-the-job training combined with supplemental related theoretical and technical instruction. This term excludes pre-apprentices, trainees, learners, and student-learners. (¶ 4)

Initially, this definition might seem to approximate the SMPRC’s description of the internship, especially if a program has received the council’s approved. Sport management students should receive on-the-job training that draws on classroom theories and provides technical experience. However, the FLSA goes on to limit apprenticeable occupations to those requiring a minimum of 2,000 hours of on-the-job experience. It is difficult to imagine that the sport management student in a 400-hour internship can legally be considered an apprentice for whom below-minimum wages are permitted—even should part of his or her compensation be academic credit.

Case Law Concerning Internships

While the FLSA does not identify the work arrangements typical of most sport management internships as the kind that can be unpaid or compensated below minimum wage, the courts nevertheless have sided with professional sport organizations in certain instances when such companies have sought exemptions. Professional baseball organizations have done particularly well in cases involving the seasonal or recreational establishment exemption.

The first court case involved the Sarasota White Sox, a minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, and Ronald R. Jeffery, a groundskeeper employed by the team (Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 1995). Jeffery had worked for the Sarasota White Sox for a number of years and sought overtime wages for overtime work performed since the beginning of his employment. In light of the team’s schedule, he had put in more than 40 hours weekly on several occasions, receiving the same compensation for those weeks as for others. The team claimed that the FLSA’s seasonal or recreational establishment clause exempted it from overtime wage requirements, and the court ruled in its favor (Jeffery v. Sarasota White Sox, Inc., 1995). The Sarasota White Sox passed both tests for the exemption. In the previous 5 seasons of its existence, the team made over 99% of its revenues during the 6-month period March through August. In addition, the club participated in a 6-month season only, surviving the 7-month test also posed by the clause. Therefore, the Sarasota White Sox received the exemption and were not required to pay overtime wages or adhere to any other stipulation of the FLSA.

Two additional cases involving Major League Baseball clubs also centered on the seasonal or recreational establishment exemption in the FLSA. The first case involved Adams, the plaintiff, and the Detroit Tigers, Inc., operating company of the Detroit Tigers. The plaintiff had been a bat boy for the team and was seeking compensation representing overtime pay for his work exceeding 40 hours per week (Adams v. Detroit Tigers, Inc., 1997). The Detroit Tigers responded as the Sarasota White Sox had, claiming exemption from the FLSA. The court recognized that the Detroit Tigers organization operated on a yearly basis, yet it also determined that Tiger Stadium operated on a 7-month schedule only, making the operation of the venue seasonal. The Tigers won the case and their exemption remained intact.

The second case in Major League Baseball was brought by maintenance workers. Robert Bridewell, Stanley McAlpin, Daisy Pearl, Melville Walker, and Eddie Rogers filed a suit seeking overtime compensation from their employer, the Cincinnati Reds, for the 1990–93 seasons (Bridewell et al. v. Cincinnati Reds, 1998). The plaintiffs claimed they were owed overtime wages by ruling of the FLSA. Unlike the Detroit Tigers (or the Sarasota White Sox), the Cincinnati Reds struggled to justify their perceived exemption from the FLSA. Initially, the district court found in favor of the team because its competitive season lasted only 7 months. An appellate court, however, found for the maintenance workers because the Cincinnati Reds employed at least 120 employees throughout each month of the year. According to the higher court, the Cincinnati Reds were not exempted from FLSA regulations; the maintenance workers received overtime wages for the 1990–93 seasons.


In terms of education, field experiences are essential to the preparation of sport management students for successful careers. As research has indicated, students who complete meaningful internship assignments have the opportunity to gain skills while applying the theories they have mastered within their academic curricula. In order to ensure that sport management students continue to enjoy this opportunity, internship supervisors and sport industry professionals need to establish specific guidelines governing field experiences. A possible solution would be for the SMPRC or other governing council to establish a set of regulations concerning student internships. Although some universities have already established guidelines for field experiences, having a set of universal standards may improve the experience for all of those involved.

The biggest problem affecting sport management internships has to be the increasingly high percentage of unpaid internships. Thousands of sport management students work tirelessly for professional sport organizations across the country. The business of sports is booming, but interns’ compensation does not reflect the boom. Since the Federal Labor Standards Act does not address this problem fully, modifications to the current legislation may be in order. Many sport organizations rely on interns to maintain the daily operations of the team. An example is the very common sport industry position of ticket seller. Teams cannot survive without ticket sales, but still today’s FLSA regulations—in particular its seasonal or recreational establishment clause—leaves interns without options. The federal government may want to reassess the tests used to justify the exemption of teams based on their seasonal nature.

The legal cases cited here did not involve sport management interns, but the general themes of the cases illustrate how the Federal Labor Standards Act affects student internships. Currently, most professional sport organizations operate with the exemption in hand, allowing the work of interns and some other employees to be under-compensated. Under the present conditions, then, sport management students need to familiarize themselves well with any position under consideration. They must also grasp the idea that they will very likely work for less than the minimum wage.

As the academic discipline of sport management continues to grow, improvements in curriculum design and field experience programs will certainly occur. In order to ensure that the ultimate goal, education, remains at the forefront of such improvements, students, professors, and sport industry professionals must continue to work together with a single mission. Ultimately, the field experiences required in most sport management programs have a largely positive impact on all of those involved. Changes in some current practices, along with some additions to the Fair Labor Standards Act, will assist the field of sport management as it moves forward.


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Bridewell et al. v. Cincinnati Reds, 155 F.3d 828, 830 (6th Cir. 1998).

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