The Freestyle Life: Lane Changes and Intersections

Student Success Story

Michael E. Jones

Master of Liberal Arts, Museum Studies Degree Program '16

A professor emeritus of sports and entertainment law, Jones has made a life of blending vocation and avocation.

Michael E. Jones is always on the move. Whether he’s training for a triathlon, curating a museum exhibit, serving on an Olympics national governing body, or putting paintbrush to canvas, he approaches each endeavor with boundless energy.  

Often, his passions intersect. Take his latest artistic creation: the painting that adorns the US Olympic Triathlon poster for the 2016 Rio games.

The official poster for the 2016 US Olympic Triathlon team. Jones’ paintings have been featured on the team’s official posters since the 2004 games in Athens.

Throughout a 40-plus-year career, Jones has blended vocation and avocation, merging sports, art, business, law, and entertainment in his work as agent, professor, legal scholar, and trial court judge. He’s also medaled in numerous national and international triathlons, including the Pan American Games.

It’s all a bit humbling. But when you talk to Jones, what strikes you most is not his lengthy list of accomplishments but his deep curiosity and strong drive to constantly challenge himself.

“I firmly believe,” Jones says, “that we all have an obligation to ourselves, our family, and our community to strive to do the best we possibly can in those arenas where we have the opportunity—whatever that may be. To compete and push ourselves—that’s tapping into our core humanity.”

A Feel for the Water

A triathlon typically begins with a freestyle swim. And that is how Jones began his athletic career. Back in 1972, as a talented swimmer on the US swim team, Jones had his mind set on beating teammate Mark Spitz in the freestyle event and making the Olympic team. “I even wrote to my mother telling her I was going to crush Mark’s time,” he says with a laugh. “Fortunately for me, she had the good sense to destroy that letter.”

Jones likes to say that there’s a moral to this story. “Not all dreams come true,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the second or third dream that comes true.”

Given his determination and numerous pursuits, Jones has made more than a few dreams become reality. After putting his Olympic aspirations behind him, he moved to Philadelphia to begin the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

“I’ve always been good with numbers, and I liked economics and financial markets,” he says. “Of course, nothing that I learned back in my Wharton days applies now. I don’t understand the first thing about how markets work today.”

Jones was also drawn to creating value in the world. While at Wharton, he coached swimming at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, an inner-city school whose students were primarily underprivileged.

All my life I have been interested in trying to do things that I thought were tough,” Jones says. “I have never shied away from risk or from advocating for what I believe in.”

He relished his days as a coach and, after graduating, carried the impulse to create opportunities into the private sector. While working for a retail corporation in the mid-70s, he met with resistance when he advocated for the inclusion of African-American models in the company’s advertisements.

One day, while his boss was out of the office, he made the bold call to place the ad he believed in—and, as expected, got the reaming of a lifetime. But he never looked back.

“All my life I have been interested in trying to do things that I thought were tough,” Jones says. “I have never shied away from risk or from advocating for what I believe in.”

A Tumble Turn Toward Advocacy

After researching issues of discrimination and notions of equality and inclusion, Jones decided to earn a juris doctor at the University of Miami School of Law. As a law student, he renewed his personal commitment to athletic competition, training under the US swim coach for the Pan American Games. During workouts in the gym alongside football players, he formed connections that led to yet another intersection—this time sports and law.

Jones would go on to advocate for professional athletes as an agent and, eventually, for entertainers like Mary Ann Esposito of PBS’s Ciao Italia.

Along the way, he transitioned to the world of academia, sharing his expertise with aspiring legal minds first at the University of New Hampshire, then—for the majority of his career—at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he directed the legal studies program until retiring in 2014.

In the past few years Jones found a way to bring his professional expertise to his personal love for art. While earning another master’s degree, at Harvard Extension School, in museum studies, he authored a text on art law and coedited a book about the work of legendary pop-icon photographer Rowland Scherman.

He also curated an exhibit of works by Nancy Ellen Craig and traveled to Cuba, where he began consulting for a local arts advocacy group trying to reclaim rights to original Cuban works.

For Jones, this is retirement. “Over the years, no matter what I’ve had going on, I’ve tried to live a regular, balanced life,” Jones says. “I’ve always been thankful for the gifts that I have—and grateful to be able to share them. I’m always asking myself, ‘What can I do to help the person next to me?’”

— Story by Leslie Helmuth

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