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Editorial: UNM sports debate must include academics, Title IX

Nobody was happy about cutting four sports at the University of New Mexico in an effort to stem a running multimillion-dollar deficit in athletics. Two of those, men’s soccer and men’s and women’s skiing, have vocal and politically connected supporters – some in the Roundhouse and executive mansion who led the drive to get UNM an extra $2 million in the budget moving through the Legislature. The added money is to reinstate the above sports and beach volleyball.

Beyond the integral issue of sustainability, there’s also a micromanaging poison pill in the legislation cutting ALL athletics funding if UNM doesn’t bend to lawmakers’ wishes.

So just add the sports back and say thanks, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The newly constituted board of regents, like its predecessor, needs to consider several issues first, some at the core of what UNM’s mission and priorities should be.

The accumulated athletics deficit, now sitting around $4.7 million, has been subsidized from the Instruction and General fund, which pays for the core education mission, including faculty salaries. And as the state has struggled with an anemic budget (until this year), UNM has taken hits on the academic side. President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nuñez prepared a report showing I&G funding for the main campus has decreased by more than $6 million a year in recurring money since 2013. That translates into “a reduction of faculty, which results in diminished research and creative work as well as erosion of the teaching mission.”

The body count? Seventeen faculty and 25 staff positions across colleges ranging from Arts and Sciences to Education, plus other cuts in areas such as travel and academic research.

So while the governor and some lawmakers seem intent on restoring sports, Stokes is concerned about restoring the academic mission – and that must be part of the conversation.

Then there’s Title IX, the federal law designed to ensure equal participation by women. Compliance with both the letter and spirt of the law is high on Stokes’ priority list. She says restoring sports will require significant investment in beach volleyball facilities – the women had been playing at a bar sandlot – and addition of another significant women’s sport. Stokes says the goal of the federal law is “proportionality” in sports opportunity, and women now outnumber men in UNM undergraduate programs 55 to 45 percent.

And that means the Legislature will need to pony up more money to pay for an additional sport – unless the university regroups and targets another major men’s sport for the chopping block. Baseball’s a possibility, but unlike soccer it is a Mountain West Conference sport, and the community and UNM have invested considerably in facilities for the program.

One simple – but incorrect – resolution would be to cut football, which one legislator called a “money pit.” And while football has struggled with ticket sales and attendance failing to meet projections, UNM officials say it’s not operating in the red. According to Stokes and Nunez’s report, when you add parking, concessions, game guarantees (for playing at places like Notre Dame and Texas A&M), naming rights, Mountain West Conference distribution and media rights, the program actually brings in $9.3 million in revenue. Football’s direct budget is an estimated $7.95 million. Bottom line: Nuñez says the football program actually pays its way and generates at least $1.4 million extra. That means sidelining football doesn’t help the financial picture; it hurts.

When this budget reconciliation process began, UNM was carrying 22 sports; the conference average is 18. In the face of cherry red ink, Stokes, Nuñez and the former board of regents concluded that made no fiscal sense. New regents will have to grapple with the sports question and can’t ignore what the priorities should be for a university that has faced budget challenges and falling enrollment.

Sustainability, the academic mission and gender equity are vital issues new regents can’t ignore regarding sports – political pressures from the stands in Santa Fe notwithstanding.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.