High school sports were hit hard Thursday in New Mexico. And college and professional sports might be soon to follow.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and later the New Mexico Activities Association, announced high school football and soccer will not be played this fall due to the high-risk nature of those contact sports to spread coronavirus between participants.
Both sports will be moved to the spring semester. Lighter-contact sports such as cross country, volleyball, and fall golf for now are still on tap but also could be delayed.
“Interscholastic athletics are an important part of the overall educational process,” NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez said in a statement. “The NMAA will work tirelessly to ensure students have the opportunity to participate in all sports and activities of their choosing during the 2020-2021 school year.”
Whether the same fate is in store for college football and professional soccer remains undecided, but they seem to be on shaky ground.
While some have delayed the starts of seasons, New Mexico is believed to be the first state to officially move its high school football season and, while some conferences have done the same at the collegiate level, no individual states have thus far forced the decision on their NCAA-sanctioned university athletic departments.
As for the professional soccer team, the New Mexico United, the governor was noncommittal beyond a statement from press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett saying it is “unlikely to play home games in the state, but an ultimate decision is yet to be finalized.”
“I’m struggling with really finding a safe path,” Lujan Grisham said of how United can continue to operate in the state under current health orders — a major problem for a team that is supposed to restart its USL Championship season Saturday in Colorado Springs. “I think it’s high risk. I have to make decisions that are fair to everyone in this environment.”
United issued a statement that said it will work with the governor “to move forward.” The governor’s office earlier in the week told the Journal the team is required to abide by the state’s travel quarantine when re-entering the state — a 14-day quarantine that would prevent United from practicing in New Mexico between matches and prevent other teams from playing in the state.
As for University of New Mexico and New Mexico State fall sports, the news didn’t sound promising, either.
“Higher education, I don’t have the same authority over the collegiate sport associations and their requirements,” said Lujan Grisham. “My hope is, and we will direct the Higher Education Department to ask (the state’s university) regents and those higher education collegiate athletic organizations to adhere to our contactless sports requirements that we’re doing in K-12 and that we strongly advise that they postpone their seasons.”
Both universities would, in fact, have to adhere to any state health orders the governor put in place, including mass gatherings and activities, on their public campuses.
NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia was aware of the governor’s remarks and decided to hold off on reaction to them until talking with university leadership. He and UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez are overseeing their school’s return-to-campus measures that including COVID-19 testing of all athletes wanting to take part in voluntary summer activities.
Nuñez said UNM “will continue to work closely with the Governor’s office, University administration and the Mountain West Conference member schools to determine a path forward.”
He added that the “strict” protocols in place are done so with the guidance of “the expertise of UNMH and our entire medical team.”
UNM, which has only had athletes back the past two weeks, has announced two of 119 COVID-19 tests have been positive (one for an athlete, one for a staffer) and NMSU, which has been back since early June, has recently paused workouts with now more than 20 positive tests for players and staff.
But for now, the definitive news hit high school sports the hardest.
“I know the kids are disappointed and I think everyone is disappointed, but I think in talking to the coaches, we knew all it was inevitable,” said Valley football coach Judge Chavez. “There’s just no way we could have done it this fall. …
“We’re all happy to at least know where we’re at now. With all this stuff going on, it’s so hard to be able to do anything without having a plan or knowing for sure if or when we were going to have a season. At least now, we know what we’re facing and I’m sure they’ll come up with a plan on what we’ll do in the spring.”
The news about high school sports came about 48 minutes into Thursday’s news conference updating the state’s COVID-19 testing, hospitalization and death data. While it was still going on, and in concert with Lujan Grisham’s power point slide showing the news about fall sports, the NMAA sent to media an official statement about the sports being moved to the spring semester.
“Although the NMAA and its member schools were hopeful that all interscholastic sports and activities could resume as originally scheduled this August, the continued coronavirus pandemic and resulting public health concerns have forced the Association to consider adjustments for the 2020-2021 school year,” the NMAA said.
“The NMAA has been working with its membership on contingency plans in preparation for this scenario and will continue to do so in an effort to ensure all sport seasons can be played this academic year. A tentative plan should be available on or around (July 15).”