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Commentary: UNM faces brutal decisions in cutting sports

I see Eddie Nuñez and Dr. Garnett Stokes, and I think of Meryl Streep.

I think specifically of that excruciating moment at the end of the movie “Sophie’s Choice” – Streep playing a Polish Jew arriving with two young kids in tow at a concentration camp. A Nazi doctor tells her that because she’s Polish, she gets a break and can decide to save one – and only one – of her children, the boy or the girl.

A horrified Sophie balks, of course – “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” – and only when several soldiers make known her refusal means she then sacrifices both children, she tearfully gives up the little girl, who screams horrifically as she is whisked away to certain execution.

It is such a powerful scene that a “Sophie’s Choice” became part of the vernacular to describe a dilemma – and it can be an awful, awful dilemma.

The working deadline for a “reduction in sports” and trimming of $1.9 million for 2018-19 remains July 1 at the University of New Mexico.

Even if it is for the greater good for the entire athletic program and a noble attempt to break its habit of spending beyond its means, the prospect of having to cut any program must feel like a Sophie’s Choice to athletic director Nuñez and President Stokes, both still relatively new in their positions.

One wonders if they are really ready to make that call or if they are hoping beyond hope that a white-hatted cowboy will ride in at the last hour with a solution and/or a large chunk of cash. Twice last week attending Board of Regents meetings, Nuñez spoke in generalities that didn’t suggest he is any closer to completion of that difficult assignment as when it first was broached a month ago.

But presume the action has no choice but to match the rhetoric for once. Lives will change. Not just those of certain student-athletes who, by and large, represent UNM in a most positive way, but their coaches, support groups and fans.

With all of this in mind, the Journal has created an online poll where readers can say which sports should be cut. Note the phrasing – it’s sports to be cut, not those to be saved.

We’re asking you to put yourselves in Nuñez’s difficult position, see.

Already over 1,700 votes have been cast despite little fanfare and no promotion until this writing. As I’m sure UNM administrators are getting the same, we receive a lot of input on the polarizing football program. It’s been an embarrassment, the Bob Davie suspension for various ugly reasons creating a black eye. It went 3-9 a year ago. It’s the main financial drain on athletics – though there is no mandate to cut the biggest money-loser, and the suggestion has been that this decision will be more nuanced than that.

Yet it likely will get its locker room renovation. It gets the extra 10th assistant coach. It seems immune to any austerity measures that the reality of its economics suggest are appropriate.

So if you think football is the golden child of UNM athletics, you’re right of course. It won’t be cut, cannot be cut, no more than the cash-generating men’s basketball program can be.

It’s because football represents the highest ceiling this athletic program can reach and for which it feels it must strive. There is the Mountain West Conference affiliation. The potential represented by all those empty Dreamstyle Stadium seats that men and women are getting paid to try to fill. There are the marketing opportunities, apparel deals and television contracts that disappear or are greatly diminished if you don’t play the sport at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

UNM realizes this, which surely is why it posted “Eight Great Reasons To Get Football Season Tix” on its website recently.

That’s a hard sell, and the post has taken its shots this week, understandably, for “reasons” such as:

“The Schedule”: It touts Incarnate Word and Turner Gill coming to Dreamstyle Stadium. If your reactions are “What?” and “Who?” UNM has a problem.

“The next generation of NFL stars”: Significantly, nobody (and I mean nobody) is saying that about the incoming freshman class. Instead this curiously references Jason Sanders, Lamar Jordan, Corey Bojorquez and Garrett Hughes, who played in 2017 and were either drafted or invited to NFL camps last month. Hopefully they all make it. But if last year’s 3-9 team had four NFL players on it, add “gross underachievement” to all the above-mentioned football difficulties.

“Your season ticket purchase helps all sports.” That’s certainly true, particularly in the context of a healthy football program meaning a more healthy athletic body as noted. But you shouldn’t have to prescribe to this “trickle down” concept. If you want to support soccer, buy soccer tickets. If you want to support softball, buy softball tickets.

Meanwhile, we are hearing that UNM men’s basketball tickets are going on sale early this week. In the wake of an upbeat finish to the 2017-18 season, with fans on board and the promise of better days ahead, what in the heck took so long? I know nothing about making money, but in a long-ago job in retail, I learned this: When people are at the front of the store and ready to check out (i.e., hand you their credit card), open a register for them. Why the delay in opening this register?

So if football and men’s basketball are untouchable, what sports can be cut?

Any of the women’s sports? There would be Title IX implications.

Soccer? Men’s coach Jeremy Fishbein is the one head coach who showed up before the Regents to plead for the sparing of his program’s life. Maybe he knows something. Cut a program that has reached Final Fours, plays local kids and has a following in a really good soccer town?

Skiing? Wait. Didn’t UNM “cut” skiing last year, only to get its wrist slapped?

Tennis? And moth ball the McKinnon Family Tennis Center so soon after taking the McKinnons generously paid to build the place and just gave UNM a lot more money?

Track/cross country? Do away with a program that has produced national champions this year, which otherwise has been horrible for UNM sports, on and off the field?

Baseball? Softball? Swimming and diving? Volleyball? Golf?

Can you choose?

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