Guest Column - September 2010
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Internships & the Law

By Susan Foster and Gil Fried

Federal and state investigators are starting to crack down on the illegal non-payment of interns. If a government agency starts investigating the sports industry, it could face a major backlash, including fines and lawsuits from former interns who were never paid and now want to obtain back wages, overtime and other monetary damages. Imprisonment is highly unlikely for intern violations of the FLSA, but such a punishment is an enforcement option. The potential legal ramifications can be disastrous for an organization.

Hiring an intern without compensation violates the original reason the FLSA was signed into law—to prevent poor labor conditions and raise the standard of living. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by Tom Hayden (March 2010) stated that even students who hold jobs while in school fall tens of thousands of dollars in debt. An internship that requires a student to pay all relocation expenses, housing costs and ordinary living expenses without any income prevents many from applying for a position for which they are highly qualified. The resulting scenario often means an organization is only hiring an individual who might live in the local area or whose parents can afford to support them. The organization is not necessarily getting the best qualified candidate. Are sports management professionals sending an inappropriate message in a time of critical economic times and relaying the wrong ethical message?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Reorganize a current internship program to meet the DOL guidelines and define an intern as an individual working 20 or more hours per week. Shorter time periods might be appropriate if the interns is truly there to learn and is assigned to a supervisor who "teaches" a new skill each time the student reports to work.
  • Create an employment situation and pay an intern the federal minimum wage for up to 40 hours of work per week and apply federal overtime laws for any hours worked over the 40. This can create a great training opportunity for observing potential new employees. Following such a strategy may also provide better protection under other state and federal employment laws.
  • Investigate membership in the Cooperative Education and Internship Association and learn about creating a cooperative education partnership with institutions that have structured student guidelines and a quality sport business internship program. You can find more information at
  • For interns working in retail or service stores or college and universities, apply for a DOL certificate that allows a college student to be paid 85 percent of the federal minimum wage. Once the student graduates, the full minimum wage must be paid. (Be aware that this type of program does have some limitations.)


Dr. Susan Brown Foster is a professor of Sport Business at Saint Leo University in Florida and has recently co-authored a book entitled Experiential Learning in Sport Management: Internships and Beyond due out in August. Gil Fried is a professor of Sport Management at the University of New Haven in Connecticut and wrote a book about and practiced employment law.