Last week, Braves general manager John Coppolella did something that most GMs would never dream of doing. He got on Twitter and took questions. It’s something that he does once in a while as part of his #AskCoppy series. Most of the questions were about various Braves personnel, along with a few “get to know you” questions.
Then, in answering a question from someone who said that he was a recent college graduate wanting advice on pursuing a career in baseball, Coppy said:
Look for internships. Don't worry about the money. Work hard & don't have expectations beyond being part of a team. Assume nothing. https://t.co/7bUe1QhRZU
Twitter did what it normally did in situations like this and responded with a collective, well-thought out critique of his advice, one full of subtlety and nuance.
I think I understand what happened on both ends of this one. Coppolella is guilty of saying something that is at once true and uncomfortable. He answered a question about baseball, but was handed a political football. In the strictest sense, his prescription is probably the best advice that he could reasonably give to the question that was asked. It’s also advice that reflects a set of facts about how the job market works that aren’t entirely polite conversation. It might not be fair, but that’s the way things are.
Earlier this year, Kate Morrison and I found that among front office workers who had recently gotten their jobs, more than 70 percent had first been interns. That includes Coppolella himself, so it makes sense when he says “look for internships.” Whether you like it or not, the data says that’s how you get in. It’s also true that the front office is not a place where you go to get wealthy. Despite the multi-million-dollar salaries of players, the people working full time in the front office are often underpaid relative to what they could be making outside of baseball.
And yes, some of the interns aren’t being paid at all. Some are.
A little later (probably after reading the notifications from the previous tweet), Coppolella wrote this:
Real fast we have been getting a lot of comments about not worrying about money in sports. As you have seen in these chats I am honest.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 15, 2016
Sports don't pay a lot when you start & I went paycheck to paycheck for nearly 15 years. One year I calculated my hourly pay at 79 cents.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 15, 2016
There were two general themes in the responses. One was anger at the idea of the existence of internships in general. Baseball teams are hardly the only businesses that use the internship model as a way to audition new workers (and collect the products of their labors) at low or no wages, though as my mother often pointed out, “everyone else is doing it” isn’t a valid excuse for anything. It’s not all that hard to figure out why internships are popular among businesses. If someone is willing to work for nothing, then why not take them up on the offer?
We applaud teams for signing third basemen to contracts which dramatically under-value their talents (in the way that paying someone $40 million instead of $80 million under-values anyone), so why not applaud them for having the good sense to take the free labor that’s being offered? The answer to that one can be summed up in the responses to the words “don’t worry about the money.” Not everyone can afford to not worry about the money.
Internships have been widely critiqued because if an intern is making a low wage, the only way to pay the bills is have a safety net to fall back on and not everyone has that safety net. But if the majority of roads into a business lead through that internship route, then by definition the door into the business is mostly closed to the people who don’t have that safety net.
There was another strain of response pointing out that the Braves are moving into a new stadium in 2017, one that will be constructed with a good amount of public financing. If the Braves are getting that sort of money from the people, maybe they can spread some of it back to the people? Coppolella accidentally ended up in the flashpoint of the very strange place that baseball holds in our culture. Baseball teams are private businesses that people treat as though they are public goods.
When the local widget factory has a really good year it's lovely, but there is no parade in the streets. People do not high five each other randomly in public because of it. There is no run on merchandise with the Consolidated Widgets logo on it. Two people don’t strike up a conversation on widget marketing strategy as if they have any idea what they’re talking about.
Baseball (and other sports teams) serves as a proxy for regional identity. To wear a Cubs shirt is, in part, to say “I’m from (the North Side of) Chicago!” Because we tie up so much of our own personal identity in our allegiance to our geographical home and our sports teams and don’t want that brand to be sullied, we ask baseball teams to endure much tighter scrutiny than any other business in town. When the local baseball team uses the internship system, it’s a bigger deal than if the local widget factory does. Maybe that’s not fair to the baseball team, but it’s the way things are.
Somewhere along the way there was a pleasant myth that grew up around how front offices operated. It used to be that working in a front office was kind of like applying to be an astronaut. Sure, someone was in those spacesuits, but you had no idea what path they took to get there. And then one day Brad Pitt hired Jonah Hill to work in the A’s front office. People from Baseball Prospectus and other websites were being recruited to work for real live teams. It seems that the public perception shifted to the other pole that “getting a job in baseball” was somehow really easy. It is, as Ron Washington might tell you, incredibly hard. There will never be a “click here to get hired by a front office” app.
The internship system presents an ethical problem in the gate-keeping process, both in baseball and more broadly. I'm not qualified to adjudicate that ethical problem. What I can do is frame the problem a little differently. Usually, this would be the part in an article where I break out the data and warn you about the gory mathematical details ahead. Today, I’d like to share a story. The only story that I’m really able to tell: mine. I don’t want to present this as anything other than a single data point, but hopefully one that reflects a few more of the nooks and crannies of the system as it is.
In late 2009, I was a recent graduate from my doctoral program, a new dad, and on the job market. For those of you who remember 2009, it was not a great time to be on the job market. At that point, I had been writing about sabermetrics as a hobby for a few years at a now-defunct website (it was before I'd started writing for Baseball Prospectus). I had also been doing some freelance work for the Cleveland Indians. This was convenient (although completely coincidental) because I'd grown up in Cleveland and was back living there while I finished up my program.
One day, knowing that I was on the job market, the Indians offered me an internship to work in the front office. I want to be clear that the Indians didn’t pull any dirty tricks or half-truths. They were fully upfront about what that entailed. The internship was time-limited and they were making no guarantees about anything full time after that. I was the one who said the word “no.”
I actually had a lot of things that might have made it easier to take the internship than most people have. My wife and I had a little bit of savings that we might have scraped by on for a while and I was already living in Cleveland, so re-locating wasn’t an issue. My parents lived in the a suburb of Cleveland in my childhood home. My dad worked a few blocks from Progressive Field. I probably could have carpooled in with him. Maybe someone else in that same position might have said “yes.”
But the savings wouldn’t have lasted forever and if I came out of the internship with nothing full time that cushion would be gone, perhaps before the internship even ended, and I'd be back in a very tenuous job market no better off. It's possible that I could have come away with a full-time job, but that was a big risk. At the time, my wife had an option to continue on to a second year of a post-doc, which meant a reasonable income and health insurance that would have given us cover while I stayed at home, took care of our daughter, and applied for jobs.
As much as 8-year-old me was surprised to hear it, I said no to the Indians because I had to be sure that my daughter was provided for. I was at a point in my life where I had to worry about the money. After some searching (it was 2009) I eventually found a nice little office job that I hold to this day.
That’s the story.
Actually, there’s a bit more to the story and I want to tell it, both to be fair to the Indians and because it’s important. My saying no to the internship was actually not the end of my relationship with the Indians. In fact, I continued to do more freelance work for them. A few months later while I was still looking for a job, the Indians asked me to interview for a full-time position that they were creating. That job went to someone else, but it led to a more formal (paid) consultancy role with the team.
I was at a point where I couldn’t afford to take an internship, but the Indians apparently still thought I had value to them and so they found a way to keep me around. I have no idea if that makes me unique or if that’s common, but let’s remember that these things are often more complex than 140 characters will allow discussion of.
You can look at my story in a few different ways. I don’t mean it to be my On The Waterfront, “I could have been a contender …” moment. The universe does not owe it to me that everything should line up perfectly. Part of being an adult is accepting the consequences of your decisions, good and bad. I know what happened after I said no and I have to say life’s been pretty good. My daughter is happy and healthy and has two sisters born after that. Life has been very good to me, and to do it again I'd probably make the same decision.
I have no idea what would have happened if I had said yes to the Indians that day. The available data suggests that I would be the general manager of at least two and possibly three teams right now. Perhaps I would have whispered something in Terry Francona’s ear that would have won Game 7 for the Indians. Perhaps I would have done something so colossally stupid that the Indians would have lost 90 games and it would have been all my fault. Maybe I would have washed out after a few months. It no longer matters.
Instead, I invite you to look at it from a different direction. I was already playing a pretty strong hand in life. I had a Ph.D. I had a strong family network. I had geography on my side. Even if things hadn’t worked out in the internship, maybe things would have been OK in my life. At that moment though, “don’t worry about the money” was too risky of a move for me. You could make the case that I was being too risk averse, but the reality was that the internship system knocked me out. If it did that to me playing a strong hand, how many other people are similarly knocked out?
I'm fond of saying that if you want the internship system to change in baseball, you have to make it a business case. The moral arguments are theoretically interesting to have, but frankly internships are legal and cheap. That’s a hard combination to beat, and if you don’t beat it things aren’t actually going to change. So, here’s my pitch: Baseball teams want (and need) the best people they can find for the job, but they are largely using the internship system as a gate-keeping mechanism.
This cuts them off from some fraction of the workforce. It’s possible that one of those “best available” people is in that fraction. Ditching the internship system comes at a cost, but every investment has the potential for a return. The return to that investment is access to that pool of people who are now left out. I honestly don’t know how big that pool is or how many of those “best people” are in that pool, but it’s a worthwhile question to ponder.