A cleanup hitter in the big leagues

Jonathan Coyles ’05 was a pretty good runner back in the day, even running track for the University of Rochester as an undergraduate. But he’s never moved as fast as he does now.

As vice president of drug, health and safety programs for Major League Baseball, Coyles oversees an array of programs aimed at keeping the world’s best baseball players healthy and the competition fair.

It’s a far-ranging portfolio, and he makes it work long distance from his home in the Rochester suburbs, often hopping a plane to baseball’s headquarters in New York City. (He met his wife, the former Jillian Hemstock, at UB School of Law; she works in risk management for the University of Rochester Medical Center, and they have two children.)

So: long hours, lots of travel, the stresses and strains of life in the big leagues. “It’s very difficult to maintain that work-life balance,” Coyles says. “There’s never really a lot of time to turn off. But if you feel strongly and passionately about the subject matter, it makes it so much easier and entirely worthwhile.”

He got thinking about these issues as an undergrad, when baseball was in the midst of a major steroid scandal and performance-enhancing drugs were a hot topic in the running world as well. At UB School of Law he took every sports law class that was offered; and when, early in his legal career, the opportunity arose in 2007 to become involved with Major League Baseball’s Drug Prevention and Treatment Programs, he jumped at the chance. “I realized how important an issue that was to me,” he says, “with my personal views on the ethics of sports, how important fairness and doing things the right way and not cheating were to me.”

His role has since evolved way beyond steroids. It now includes administering the sport’s concussion protocol and other issues of health and safety, including tobacco use. As part of the league’s labor relations department, he also helps renegotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) with players every five years.

New health and safety initiatives that affect the major league players also have to be bargained through the CBA. There are also policies that apply to non-unionized employees of Major League Baseball, including about 7,500 ballplayers in the minor leagues, managers, coaches and unsigned prospects coming out of the draft. (Umpires have their own union.)   

“We’ve come so far in the last 10 years in the areas I deal with,” Coyles says, “and we’ve reached a good place that we’re confident in and proud of.” He notes that the players themselves have made valuable suggestions especially on drug testing; management and the players’ union meet each fall, within 30 days of the end of the World Series, to look at the league’s health and safety regulations and consider changes.

“We have a strong relationship with our union, a good relationship on the topics I focus on,” he says. “When you’re dealing with things like drug testing and health and safety policies, it's important to have the athletes’ perspective – to see it from their view because it’s their career. And that makes our programs stronger.”

When Coyles returns to the School of Law on Oct. 22 as a guest in Helen “Nellie” Drew’s class and for a public roundtable on drug testing issues, he recognizes that some students, trying to imagine their professional futures, will be looking at him with envy. “It’s all about timing,” he says by way of reassurance, “and there’s a little bit of luck. But if you’re willing to put in the time and effort and work hard, it’s a realistic possibility to break into a difficult industry like professional sports.”

Law school, he says, taught him “non-tangible things: work ethic, focus, concentration, managing your time and maintaining a work-life balance, attention to detail, being incredibly cautious and careful particularly with sensitive information, respecting confidentiality. Someone with a law degree brings those non-tangible items to the table, and that’s incredibly important to any employer.”

“I count my lucky stars that I’m able to do this job that I really enjoy and really care about.”

Jonathan Coyles ’05.

Jonathan Coyles ’05

Airing the issues

Helen “Nellie” Drew’s Intensive Research and Writing Seminar hosts four public roundtables each semester, tackling current topics in sports law. Three remain this fall:

  • Oct. 22: Jonathan Coyles ’05, on drug testing in professional sports.
  • Oct. 23: Leslie M. Greenbaum ’73, a Buffalo intellectual property lawyer, on IP and branding in sports and entertainment.
  • Nov. 8: UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt and Kathleen Twist, senior associate athletic director and senior women's athletic director, on diversity and inclusion, as well as freedom of expression, in amateur athletics.  

The events run from 11 a.m. to noon in the Cellino & Barnes Conference Center on the fifth floor of O’Brian Hall. They’re open to the School of Law community at large.

Drew, who’s the point person for the school’s growing involvement in sports law, also reminds fans to check out the law school’s blog, UBLawSportsForum.com where students, faculty, alumni and friends discuss current issues related to the many facets of sports and entertainment law.