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Professional sport, interns and exploitation

I observed with interest the publication last week of the British Association for Sport & Exercise Sciences (BASES) position statement on graduate internships in sport. In the last decade, particularly in the UK there has been a growing trend for, in the main but not exclusively, professional sport to offer graduate intern opportunities within the disciplines of sport science. This trend has also been reflected within applied sport psychology. Professional sports clubs became aware of the fact that for graduates the opportunity to gain experience in the real performance and developmental sports worlds was a significant lure. This led to sports taking advantage of this desire by offering unpaid internship positions. Some of these internship positions were a few hours a week but others were in essence full-time positions. The clubs were taking the expertise and knowledge of the internees to fulfill jobs and reduce employed staff workloads without paying them for their time.

Just to put this into context some intern positions that have been made available in the last two years have been full-time but unpaid. So the question then is how do these interns live? With a full-time intern post there is very little time to earn money doing anything else so how did the sports clubs expect the interns to pay rent, bills, for groceries etc?

The BASES position statement is encouraging as it is published with the support of other organizations including Intern Aware, English Institute of Sport, Sport & Recreation Alliance, UK Sport, and the UK Strength and Conditioning Association.

Intern Aware ( are driving a national campaign for fair, paid internships, with all interns to be paid the National Minimum wage at least. Indeed Intern Aware are taking this a step further by encouraging unpaid interns to ‘claim back your pay’. Particularly if the role included set hours, specific duties and responsibilities and were doing jobs that otherwise paid staff would do. A quick glance on the Intern Aware website and you will find that “Under employment law, people who work set hours, do set tasks and contribute value to an organisation are “workers” and are entitled to the minimum wage. This means even if your internship was just about being expected to turn up at a certain time and add some numbers in Excel you are likely to be entitled to pay. And as it is impossible to sign away your rights, even if you have agreed to work without pay you can still claim. Every time an intern has taken their employer to court for not being paid the minimum wage they have won”. So, more legal challenges might well become the norm.

This is all of particular interest in Sport & Exercise Psychology in the UK as it costs a lot of time and money to become fully qualified. Trainee Sport & Exercise Psychologists have to undertake a minimum of six years of education (degree, Masters degree, two years professional supervision). With the recent increase in University tuition fees trainees can expect to have paid almost £40,000 in fees and costs (excluding living costs) by the time they are registered practitioners. So, the thought of newly qualified practitioners, or even trainees in the supervision stages not getting paid for their work, knowledge and expertise is unacceptable. But while unacceptable it has nevertheless been occurring.

There now seems to be a desire within the industry to tackle this issue, which is not before time. The British Psychological Society (BPS) Division of Sport & Exercise Psychology (DSEP) is starting to work in partnership with National organizations and governing bodies to get a fair deal for trainee Sport & Exercise Psychologists. There are projects in development with the Football Association (FA) and the UK Government funded Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS). Hopefully this is a vision of a future where trainees expertise is appropriately recognized. The analogy I will use relates to hair dressing. If you go to the hairdressers you can have your hair cut by a trainee or a professional. The trainee is cheaper (reflecting their current position), but you are still getting a haircut, so you still have to pay. Supervisees in Sport & Exercise Psychology already have 2 degrees, so it is reasonable to expect to pay a fair price for their knowledge, time and expertise.

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