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Students, politicians cry foul as UNM regents again consider cutting sports

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents will meet again at 1 p.m. today to consider a contentious proposal to cut four sports and alter the rosters of others.

In a widely criticized move, the board voted 6-0 on July 19 to cut men’s soccer, women’s beach volleyball and the men’s and women’s ski teams and drastically change rosters for women’s swimming and diving and men’s track and field.

UNM President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez proposed the cuts last month, calling them necessary to address years of financial and federal Title IX gender equity shortcomings.

But since then, the community has come out swinging.

An opinion issued last week by the state Attorney General’s Office that the gathering violated the Open Meetings Act has prompted the regents to schedule today’s do-over, one many hope will lead to a different result.

Attorney General Hector Balderas also strongly urged UNM to get more public input before any new vote.

 UNM student-athletes from some of the sports that could be cut at today's Board of Regents meeting attend a rally Thursday night. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

UNM student-athletes from some of the sports that could be cut at today’s Board of Regents meeting attend a rally Thursday night. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

About 200 people attended an on-campus rally Thursday night in support of all sports – those proposed to be cut and those not on the chopping block.

“It’s a disservice to the community of Albuquerque,” Lobo alum Steven Hartman said at the rally. “… The more emphasis we get on really trying to support these teams, and keep them funded, I hope someone will hear it.”

Ski team members danced on roller blades with others at the rally and raised signs protesting the proposed cuts.

When the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust” began to play as the rally began, ski team advocate John Garcia said, “Not the song to play right now,” and requested “We Are the Champions” instead.

The men’s soccer team did not come to the rally. The team is in Colorado for an exhibition match and is not expected at today’s regents meeting.

Both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham and Republican Steve Pearce – and now Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller – have publicly criticized the decision.

Five Democratic state legislators held a news conference shortly after the July 19 vote and said that UNM should have asked for help and the improving economy could mean more money for UNM sports this coming session. UNM says it has sought help.

On Wednesday, UNM posted online more than 500 pages of documents it says were used in making the decision on what sports to eliminate. Included were lists of athletes who won conference player-of-the-week awards, a 60-page section called “news articles” that included releases from other universities justifying why they cut sports, and numerous pages of financial documents that have been presented to regents at open meetings over the past several months.

UNM has not said definitively if it plans a new vote today, but the agenda posted for the meeting does list the issue as an action item.

Players felt misled

Now, women’s beach volleyball student-athletes say they plan to file a Title IX grievance over the move and told the Journal they believe they were misled when they were asked to participate in a Title IX assessment interview last spring.

They claim their comments made to a paid consultant were later used as justification for eliminating their sport.

“I just want to be able to have trust in those people in power, in those people who are making the decisions for us and running our department,” said senior Mercedes Pacheco.

Junior Lauren Twitty and senior Carly Beddingfield said they were told their comments to Helen Grant would remain confidential and was their opportunity to bring up any concerns they had about facilities, resources or other potential gender equity issues they had in athletics.

But the report was made public in May and included comments about playing at an off-campus bowling alley. Those concerns were used, in part, by UNM as justification for eliminating the program because the department said it couldn’t afford the estimated $340,000 to build an on-campus facility.

“We went into it thinking it was a positive thing for us,” Bedingfield said of the opportunity to express concerns about gender equity issues. “We have been feeling like there are a lot of Title IX issues.”

Twitty said, “We didn’t realize that it was going to be used against us.”

Nuñez said in an email Thursday that the athletes interviewed for the Title IX assessment should not have expected their answers to be confidential.

“The student athletes knew that Ms. Grant was doing an assessment of Title IX at UNM and that they needed to tell her exactly how they felt or would rate their participation opportunity, support services, facilities and overall NCAA Division I intercollegiate athletics.”

He said the consultant was not hired to help in making a decision on whether to cut sports.

Financial help coming?

KOB-TV reported Wednesday that a private donor offered $250,000 over five years to save the diving portion of UNM’s swimming and diving program, but Nuñez said he is not aware of any such commitment.

Keller – who wrote Stokes what he said was an unanswered letter in May urging UNM not to defund men’s soccer – said he would not normally weigh in on UNM decisions but this transcends the institution. He cited the city’s investment in soccer, including a minor league professional team slated to play its inaugural season next year at Isotopes Park.

The new team’s coach, Troy Lesesne, joined Keller at Thursday’s news conference, as did City Councilor Ken Sanchez, Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley and state Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.

Martinez said there is support for soccer in the Legislature and funds are available that could help salvage the sport. Asked what he would do if others – even other departments at UNM – asked for state help, he said there is a scarcity “myth” in New Mexico that makes people believe that funding in one area must come at the expense of another.

“There is plenty of money to go around. I’m not saying that in terms of ‘let’s just spend money,’ ” Martinez said. “What I’m saying is if we prioritize our funding, we are able to save not only these sports, but we will be able to be more efficient in our administration of those sports, both in the athletic department for sure but elsewhere in state government.”

Nuñez told the Journal, “The president and I have met with state leaders and they have offered to assist in the process but we currently have not received any assurance of reoccurring dollars.”

Journal staff writers Jessica Dyer and Matt Reisen contributed to this article.

 

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