NM leaders are right to speak up about athletics

UNM soccer coach Jeremy Fishbein

A Sept. 21 editorial from the Albuquerque Journal’s editorial board accused Congresswoman and gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham of “pandering” when she pledged her support to efforts that would restore UNM’s recently discontinued men’s soccer, skiing and beach volleyball programs. It was implied that New Mexico’s next governor should not have a vision or opinions on the important challenges facing our state’s universities. Whether it is Lujan Grisham or U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, I would expect our next governor to be very involved in decisions of such magnitude. All of the elected officials and candidates that have spoken against the cuts have done so because a clear majority of their constituents have been critical of the decision. If that’s “pandering,” then I guess I’m in favor. I expect our elected officials to provide oversight of all state institutions – not through micromanagement, but by providing consistent and honest leadership with extremely high standards, making sure that these institutions are responsive to the community.

I believe my voice deserves to be heard when it comes to soccer in our state. I’ve been coaching UNM soccer for more than 17 years and have worked with the youth of New Mexico since the early ’90s when asked to host a soccer camp in Gallup while head coach at Fort Lewis College. I have worked with youth soccer players from Las Cruces, Hobbs, Artesia, Gallup, Farmington, Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque. … Since 2001, the UNM men’s soccer program has had more academic All-Americans than any other soccer program in the country, has made 12 NCAA tournament appearances, five “Sweet 16s,” and two “Final Fours,” and our athletes have gone on to do great things on and off the field as professional athletes, representatives of their countries’ national soccer teams, doctors, military leaders, judges, teachers, law enforcement officers, lawyers and other impactful professions – many in New Mexico.

I’m proud and humbled to be associated with a program that’s had such an immense impact across New Mexico. Our team has worked with thousands of youth from diverse communities, and our statewide recruitment has had a real impact on young people’s lives. Soccer represents New Mexico values: diversity, progress, openness and community. This global game brings New Mexicans together regardless of nationality, race, religion, geography and income.

I was shocked and saddened by our university’s decision to eliminate a program that so many have worked hard to build into a positive force for New Mexico communities, a program that truly represents and embodies New Mexico culture and values, and a program which has seen real success on and off the field in doing so.

UNM’s athletic program is in large part funded by New Mexico taxpayers and ticket buyers. We have an obligation to represent all the residents of New Mexico. Our elected officials, administrators and coaches, all public servants at the end of the day, have a responsibility to be accountable, transparent and reasonable in their decisions and consider their impact on our state’s communities. While I have great respect for the challenges decision-makers face, I wish more thought and time had been given to our communities’ views and the impact decisions would have on families across the state. At a university where enrollment is declining, I’m afraid we’re sending the wrong message within our state, across our country and all over the world to prospective students and families when we threaten to eliminate the programs that represent them and their values. We must be progressive, not reactive. Develop, don’t limit, excellence.

Hence my confusion with the Journal editorial board’s attack on Lujan Grisham Sept. 21, as well as its Sept. 25 editorial, “UNM budget woes put sports cuts in perspective,” in which it used the term “caterwauling and public grandstanding” to describe calls by lawmakers for UNM to reconsider its decision. These leaders are just listening to what the public is telling them. I know I’m not alone when I applaud elected officials for standing up for what’s right and committing to find common-sense solutions that New Mexicans can get behind. This isn’t pandering. It’s the stand-up leadership New Mexico families deserve.

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