EDITOR’S COLUMN: Stop expecting us to work for free

Unpaid internships shouldn’t exist, period.

My Twitter timeline (which I guess would be considered sports journalism Twitter) found its main character on Monday, March 1 as one writer put it. It all started with a tweet from a NFL Network reporter, who I will leave unnamed because she doesn’t
deserve the mention.

She tweeted about her disappointment in the comments she got about “an opportunity for an unpaid internship” that she “would have jumped at” in college. Her following tweet reads “One other layer…for future journalists…your first few years feel unpaid. I made 16.5k my first two years and worked harder than I’ve ever worked. There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business. I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind” with a peace sign emoji at the end.

Unsurprisingly, she comes from a family with money. Many people fired back that she had a safety net. Others came out and acknowledged that the unpaid internships they took wouldn’t have been possible for them without their family’s help financially. 

Unpaid internships are for students who don’t need to work 40+ hours a week all summer to keep themselves afloat during the school year. They’re for students who can afford to take four months of the year without income, with parents to pay their rent or tuition once they get back from a summer full of work and nothing to show for it
in their bank accounts.

That group of people is … small. And typically, white. Students from marginalized communities are far less likely to have generational wealth to fall back on when it comes to taking unpaid internships. First generation students who come from a family with little to no money and take on substantially more student debt are shut out of these opportunities.

I’ve had multiple jobs year-round since I got to college. The idea of me being able to take four months off working – during the time of year I have the most free time, at that – and keep myself financially stable going into a school year is laughable. 

The only internship offer I had after my sophomore year paid me a decent hourly wage, but they only allowed me to work 15 hours a week because that’s all they could afford. If I hadn’t been able to live with my aunt that summer, there’s no way I could have taken that. If my parents hadn’t offered me a little financial cushion if I needed it when I transitioned back to school and got back to my other jobs, I couldn’t have taken that internship. 

The entire idea of unpaid internships is exploitive and undermines the value of the work done by the intern. I’ve seen the work that student journalists do. A lot of it is high quality work that is damn near on the same level that many entry level reporters produce and better, so there is absolutely no reason not to pay them. 

The other infuriating part of this woman’s argument was the last bit of her tweet: “There is a reason not everyone makes it in this business. I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind.”

Does the need to be paid for the work I do mean I “don’t understand the grind”? Does the fact that I refuse to produce my work for free mean I don’t have work ethic? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. 

I’m going to quote Pistons beat writer Omari Sankofa II’s tweet because I don’t think I could say this any better: “Being willing and able work for free in college says little about your work ethic and a lot about your families’ financial situation and ability to support you. People need to understand that privilege and merit are not the same thing.”

The fact that someone can afford to work for free says a lot more about the privilege they came from than the work ethic they possess. This business is demanding and competitive, having a strong work ethic is a given if you want a chance of making it. Your willingness to work for free has absolutely no correlation to your dedication and hard work. And in this industry, the internships you get can literally change the trajectory of your career. How is it right in any sense of the word to limit these opportunities to people who have their family’s
money to fall back on?

Unpaid internships shrink application pools and effectively perpetuate the gatekeeping in this industry. They are barriers for people who simply cannot afford to work for free. 

The students who cannot afford to work for free most likely work at least one job while going to school full time. Yet, because we need the income, we don’t understand “the grind”? Because we are not willing to let ourselves get taken advantage of for the high-quality work we do, we don’t know what it
means to work hard?

It’s 2021, let’s all wake up and stop spreading this toxic idea that working for experience and no pay is a fair and equitable way to structure internships.