Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Citing the rise of positive COVID-19 cases among young people in the state, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday sent a letter to the leadership of the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University strongly urging both to suspend contact sports this fall, including football and soccer.
In the letter reviewed Tuesday by the Journal, Lujan Grisham, who earlier this month ordered the New Mexico Activities Association to postpone all fall contact sports at the high school level until 2021, is now urging the governor-appointed regents and university leadership at UNM and NMSU to take similar steps. The letter states it is “critical that you postpone collegiate athletics in this moment of escalating danger,” saying there is potential they could be resumed in late 2020 or early 2021.
“I know what I am asking you to contemplate is difficult and unprecedented, but these are difficult and unprecedented times,” Lujan Grisham wrote. “Fighting COVID-19 is a team sport. I am asking each of you to join me and take it upon yourselves to do everything you can to fight COVID-19. Together we can protect all New Mexicans, and if we are successful, we can resume contact sports and re-engage in the camaraderie and joy they bring all of us in a safe manner as soon as we can.”
The letter didn’t make clear if the governor wants both schools to suspend immediately any ongoing offseason workouts.
The letter also stressed that the number of young people with the virus has spiked in New Mexico, and that while it rarely causes death in that age group, it can cause long-lasting harm.
Both UNM and NMSU said while they plan to continue working closely with the governor to put the health and safety of students first, neither has yet made a final decision on the governor’s request.
Meanwhile, the letter was sent on a day the Journal learned that New Mexico United, the state’s professional soccer team based in Albuquerque, with the governor’s knowledge, has been practicing despite having played two out-of-state matches since July 11. That would seem to be out of the question according to the Governor’s Executive Order requiring a 14-day travel quarantine for anyone entering the state.
The executive order mandating the 14-day travel quarantine allows for people to leave quarantine only for medical purposes, which United majority owner Peter Trevisani says his team is doing.
“The thing about our players is if they aren’t out training or getting some kind of care between their matches, they risk serious or even catastrophic type of injuries in a game,” said Trevisani.
Trevisani, who is on the governor’s Economic Recovery Council helping map out the state’s reopening amid the pandemic, acknowledged people might question whether his team was getting special treatment, but emphasized that is not the case.
The governor’s office has said it is aware of the stringent league-mandated health guidelines United is undergoing with its core travel group of about 25 players, coaches and staff members who are staying in their own bubble of sorts that includes mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing and numerous other restrictions.
The team, Trevisani said, is either training, playing or traveling in controlled groups, “Otherwise they’re in their rooms, not getting coffee. They’re socially distanced or isolated. And I think it’s working. We’ve been in this bubble for well over a month now, maybe two. We haven’t had a positive test yet.”
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham is aware United has been training upon return to Albuquerque from past out-of-state matches and that the state is not “considering any special exemptions, but certainly the hope is to find a way to ensure United can continue to operate safely and in line with the state’s public health requirements to keep players, families, trainers and others associated with the team – and of course the broader community and state – as safe as possible.”
At a news conference on July 9, the governor said United would likely not be playing games in New Mexico this season. Its first home game, scheduled next week, has been moved to September.
Her letter to the universities said “sports, especially contact sports, are unsafe at this point in time.”
The governor’s letter states COVID-19 cases in New Mexico among 20- to 39-year-olds are rising, and while that age group might not be dying from the virus at a high rate, “their bodies are too often indelibly harmed, forever scarred” as a result.
“It is therefore critical that you postpone collegiate athletics in this moment of escalating danger,” Lujan Grisham wrote. “This is an essential step we must take if we are to return to some safe and balanced new normal as quickly as possible.”
Both UNM and NMSU have yet to say they will adhere to the governor’s request and both have prior contractual agreements that are tied in with multi-million dollar television deals and previously agreed to football games.
UNM offered the Journal a joint statement from UNM President Garnett Stokes and UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez that read:
“The health and well-being of our student athletes and our Lobo community is, first and foremost, our top consideration in how we approach our fall athletic programs. Equally important is ensuring student academic success. We have been in regular communication with the Governor’s office over the past several months, and we sincerely appreciate the guidance her office has provided as we have worked on our plans for fall sports. We expect discussions with the NCAA and the Mountain West Conference to continue over the next couple of weeks as plans for the fall are finalized.”
Similarly, NMSU said it is still deciding how to proceed with what the letter requested and how that will affect their fall semester.
“We are actively monitoring this ever-changing landscape with regard to intercollegiate athletics and following the decisions being made by the NCAA, the conferences, and other associated bodies,” wrote a university spokesman in an email. “We are also in continuous conversation with health experts in the state and on our campus. While we have not yet made any decisions with regard to altering our fall schedule, our commitment is to do what’s best for our student athletes and our programs.”