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Commentary: Student-athletes aren’t only ones to feel a loss

Maybe you’re like me, a disinterested (as journalists must be) observer of University of New Mexico athletics who never once pulled for them to win or lose any athletic contest.

But disinterested doesn’t mean uninterested. I have cared about the vitality of their programs as a “quality of life” measure – just as I would root for a high school trying to field a football team as a suitable extracurricular activity. Just as I would root for the Isotopes to thrive in Albuquerque so that Triple-A baseball doesn’t skip town again.

Success for the community’s sake, the rising tide lifting all boats, all of that.

I was hoping against hope that UNM athletics would somehow magically avoid Terrible Thursday.

It hurts that it did not.

The merits of one sport vs. another forever will be debated. UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez and President Garnett Stokes, rookies in their jobs no more as of today, did what they must do, to be clear, in requesting the elimination of four – men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, and beach volleyball.

The athletic budget has gone red in nine of the last 11 years. The argument that red ink in the low seven figures doesn’t matter in a mammoth nine-figure overall budget is silly. Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron otherwise wouldn’t have brought us to the day of reckoning and the mandatory repayment plan.

Anyone who thinks deficit spending is OK mustn’t have any skin in the game. But with public money, we all do.

Said Regent Suzanne Quillen on Thursday, before the board’s decision: “I have to think back to my first private meeting with President Stokes before she had really even started and I reminded her of all the very difficult issues we have going on at this university and how, sometimes, we just sort of move it down the road, hoping for a magic bullet. … I was sort of challenging her. ‘Do you think you’re up to these difficult decisions?’ And she turned it around and said, ‘I have to ask you. Are you all up to supporting my difficult decisions?'”

If only the regents hadn’t waited for years for the “magic bullet.” Or who knows what would have happened if Damron hadn’t intervened?

Anyway, those watching either in person or on the Journal’s live stream of the four-hour Board or Regents meeting Thursday saw legions of speakers in support of the affected programs and their students, who so positively impact UNM and this community.

Men’s soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein made that point over his 15 minutes, five times longer than given most speakers by rule. In that span, he was the consummate Fishbein – alternately eloquent, insightful and eventually abrasive, forgetting that vinegar doesn’t catch flies. Time’s up, he was told at the point he started calling out administrators and regents individually.

As to the narrative retold, we all get it. Athletics at this level attracts the achievers. They’re the best and the brightest to begin with, and when they get academic support that the average student doesn’t, they flourish.

Many of those young men and women, for these reasons, will have opportunities and land softly elsewhere, sooner or later.

That’s where we in Albuquerque lose out. I feel more sorry for us than for them.

Unfortunately, I didn’t hear, from any of these speakers, a financial solution to what brought them together on this fateful morning. Or a Title IX solution. Or any pragmatic solution.

So when these programs officially disband after July 1, 2019, will we miss men’s and women’s skiing? From a spectator standpoint, it’s not like you can hold a meet in South Campus before the student body.

Will we miss beach volleyball, a program only four years old, holding one home tournament a year?

Men’s soccer is different. It has been part of the fabric of this town for a long time, with high-quality play against high quality teams on invigorating fall nights for those who preferred fútbol to football, often by kids we had watched grow up – and who would continue to do so playing for an outstanding leader in Fishbein.

Absolutely we will miss that.

Even worse, there is this: The plan approved Thursday only achieves $1.15 million in savings, when $1.9 million is necessary. The plan to make up the rest of the difference includes the uncertain aspect of raising more revenue.

It’s never good when you’re asking the universe to meet you nearly halfway.

Meanwhile, by UNM’s own projections, the female proportion of the undergraduate student body will only grow each year, to 58 percent in 2021-22. Title IX problems were addressed Thursday, but not solved.

There is this gnawing feeling that all of this is by no means over.

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