The entire media industry suffers from lack of diversity. But the problem is especially apparent in sports media, where largely white reporters and editors cover leagues with majorities of Black and Brown players. Unpaid internships only fuel this gross disparity.
The long-running debate over unpaid internships was reignited this week when NFL Media reporter Jane Slater shared an unpaid opportunity with her followers. When Slater encountered backlash, she doubled down, boasting about her experience working three unpaid internships in college along with a job. Soon thereafter, Twitter users picked up on previous comments from Slater, in which she praised her grandfather for supporting her “emotionally and financially” through college (Slater’s grandfather was the president of Wolf Brand Chili).
“To the people shaming me for my hardworking grandfather and parents who instilled a similar work ethic to achieve success, you are rotten,” Slater wrote.
Slater eventually clarified her thoughts, pointing out she would never support anybody working for free. She did, however, still highlight her work ethic: “I did not grow up rich,” she wrote. “I always had a job and was taught to value hard work and paying my own bills.”
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Many of the NFL reporters who defended Slater, including Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, echoed her sentiments about how working unpaid internships is one of the best ways to get ahead in a highly competitive field. And therein lies the problem: college students who can easily take unpaid gigs usually come from privileged backgrounds. That means opportunities are only open to a select few.
Way back in 1979, the American Society of News Editors forecasted that by the year 2000, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in newsrooms would mirror the population at large. That pledge was way off. While racial and ethnic minorities comprise almost 40% of the U.S. population, they make up less than 17% of newsroom staff at print and online outlets, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
The numbers in sports media are just as porous. The last study of the 75 outlets belonging to the Associated Press Sports Editors, which was published in 2018, found at least 78% of all editorial positions were filled by white people. The gender disparity was even more stark: 90% of sports editors and 88.5% of reporters were men.
With those figures in mind, there’s an obvious opportunity gap between white people and people of color when it comes to landing full-time jobs in sports media. One explanation is the staggering wealth gap between white and Black families. The Brookings Institute found the net worth of a typical white family is 10 times greater than that of a Black family. As we all know, wealthy kids are better positioned to grind through that unpaid college internship, because it’s less likely they need to dedicate time to working. (With my parents taking care of tuition, I was able to focus on two unpaid internships during college, one of which resulted in a paying position.)
The racial composition in press boxes doesn’t mirror the racial makeup in locker rooms: the NBA is nearly 80% Black; the NFL is 74% players of color; MLB is 40% players of color. It’s generally considered a positive for journalists to reflect whom they cover. In that respect, sports departments fail miserably.
Racial disparities are prevalent everywhere in sports. In the NFL, there are only three Black head coaches, despite increased efforts to increase diversity in the coaching ranks. Just seven of the 30 NBA head coaches are people of color.
The front offices of professional sports franchises are just as white. The NFL and NBA each has five Black general managers. Of the three major sports leagues, only one principal owner is Black: Michael Jordan.
Black and Brown players aren’t represented in the coaching ranks, front offices or the press. Eliminating unpaid internships in sports media wouldn’t eradicate this entire imbalance, but it would help.