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Editorial: NMSU playing fast, loose with athletes’ conduct code

Come October, New Mexico State University basketball fans may be grateful school administrators managed to salvage the hoops career of the team’s leading scorer. But university leaders may want to consider calling a timeout on their own fast-and-loose ethical decisions, which may very well be helping the Aggies’ short-term competitive edge at the long-term expense of their program’s reputation and culture.

Terrell Brown arrived at NMSU last year under a cloud. The 6-1 guard played his freshman season at San Jose State before getting booted after his 2017 arrest in connection with a violent robbery. The victim was beaten by a group of people – including Brown – who then stole his wallet, phone and belt.

While his criminal case was pending, Brown played a season at City College of San Francisco before walking on and playing at NMSU last year. That despite a policy like many universities’ – including the University of New Mexico – that student athletes charged with felonies be suspended indefinitely. The college squeezed itself through a pin-sized loophole to do it; athletic director Mario Moccia told the Las Cruces Sun-News at the time that Brown wasn’t enrolled at NMSU when he was charged, so no violation occurred.

In April, school leaders decided to do away with the student-athlete code of conduct altogether, which included requiring the permanent dismissal of a student-athlete convicted of a felony. They decided instead that athletes be held to the same standard as regular students – no penalty for criminal convictions. Conveniently, that change happened just weeks before Brown pleaded no contest to felony assault. As a point of comparison, UNM policy leaves final post-conviction decisions to its athletic director.

NMSU leaders seem to be sliding down a slippery slope when it comes to their version of the Aggie Pathway.

There’s a reason student athletes are held to a higher standard; it’s an honor and privilege to play college-level sports, especially at the Division I level. Remember, too, that athletics are a major recruitment and alumni engagement tool.

As far as public optics go, does NMSU really want to be known as a mid-major landing pad for student-athletes with legal problems that include violent assault? Just consider other iffy athletics calls the school has made in recent years:

• Hiring men’s basketball coach Chris Jans in 2017 after he was fired from Bowling Green State University when a video came to light of him harassing a woman in a bar. So far Jans has had no public missteps at NMSU, and his teams have averaged 29 wins over two seasons. But his hiring raises the question of NMSU’s priorities.

• Failing to suspend forward Eli Chuha last year after Chuha was seen throwing a punch during a tussle with UNM basketball players. UNM benched its involved player, by contrast.

How do university leaders think their preferential treatment of Brown will play with his teammates? Is there any concern about resentment from the less-favored players? And how many Aggies on the roster today are really fated for Pascal Siakam-style NBA glory, criminal records be damned? Likely not many, and that’s OK. Wherever these student-athletes’ lives take them – graduate school, world travel, the private/public/nonprofit sector, parenthood – the experience of being a college athlete, of setting the bar and working to exceed it, will always be with them. There’s no understating the remarkably close bonds student athletes can build. Those bonds, and the pride of athletic accomplishments, are what players take with them after college; aren’t these more important than looking the other way to get a win?

We wish Brown the best of luck and that his first criminal conviction is his last. And we hope for current and future Aggies’ sakes NMSU starts to take its reputation more seriously.

To do that, NMSU needs to reinstate its student athlete code of conduct, affirm that it values all its players equally and stop turning a blind eye to bad behavior.

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.

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