Honestly, my reflex when I heard Washington is going to change the name of its NFL team:
“Good. Please, make it anything but ‘United’.”
Yeah, I know. New Mexico’s second-year pro soccer team has made up for the lack of originality in nickname selection by running with it in spectacular fashion. This rallying cry of “Somos Unidos” — the vibe that we are all in this together, New Mexico, and in ways that far transcend soccer — resonates with a demographic large enough that the club had the top United Soccer League team in home attendance last year.
Last year. Sigh.
This year, in the coronavirus pandemic, “Somos Unidos” might as well give way in another context to “Los negocios son los negocios” (business is business) — or, more like, “Somos Unidos, pero no todos somos iguales” (We are United, but we are not equal.).
As in, we are not United’s equal when it comes to compliance with the governor’s public health orders.
How do we know?
Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter to University of New Mexico, New Mexico State and other colleges and universities with the message that it is “critical that you postpone college athletics in this moment of escalating danger.” The “frighteningly” high and rising number of COVID-19 cases among those ages 20-39 make sports participated in by that demographic just too dangerous.
Soccer would be one of those sports the governor wants postponed. We all need to make tough decisions and sacrifices to save ourselves was the letter’s tone, adding, “Higher education institutions are no exception.”
So who is excepted? United.
The governor said two weeks ago that United would not practice or play games in New Mexico for now. But again, two weeks ago.
United is practicing. Its President/CEO Peter Trevisani offers the rationale that the team can practice under a “medical treatment exemption” to the public health order; that practice is “preventative care”; and that failure to do so would mean players “risk serious catastrophic problems.”
Tuesday, the Journal’s Geoff Grammer asked the governor’s office if it agrees with that premise. Lujan Grisham spokesperson Tripp Stelnicki’s answer:
“My understanding is the team is operating under additional physical-distance protocols within their own team environment to ensure the safest possible conduct. So, yes.”
It’s a veritable shrug of the shoulders not only on the same day, but in the same email, in which he revealed Lujan Grisham’s urgent letter to university leadership suggesting drastic measures.
The same letter warned of the dangers of contact sports right now, much like what United is doing, in venues out of state, no less. The same letter that warned of the dangers to the 20-39 age group — the group United players are in, God bless ’em.
So if you’re confused, imagine what’s whirling in the minds of athletic officials at UNM — they just bought a sprayer for the training room that kills COVID! I know where I’m hosting my next dance party now. Give me the thumping sounds of Justin Bieber and the resurgent Eminem amid the misty delicate scent of lemongrass grapefruit.
Imagine being brass with the Colorado Rockies, who at the 11th hour decided not to send their reserve players to Albuquerque for the Apocalyptic Season because, well, they actually thought the public health orders and the untenable 14-day quarantine when bouncing from one state back to ours would have teeth.
Imagine the sidelined fall-sport athletes at NMSU, the Division 2s, and the high schools who can’t help but be confused to see United playing on their ESPN-Plus stream.
Imagine being the athletic directors at UNM and NMSU, whose athletic departments are infinitely bigger businesses than this soccer team, and now are being as careful with their words as we all would be with our last dollar. The potential of losing their fall sports, particularly the opportunity to play payday football games, would be staggering and long-lasting.
Trevisani of course is on Lujan Grisham’s Economic Recovery Council, which smells like conflict of interest (except that everybody on that council has an agenda of one sort or another). He would say that United is working under the letter of the directive, that its bubble is working, with no COVID cases yet, and point out that pro sports offer, fairly or unfairly, a structure for a safer environment than exposed to the rest of us. The team did of course dodge a bullet — its last game (and Friday’s) was at El Paso, which had just concluded playing a team that had a player with the virus.
And, the public health order has forced him to reschedule United’s July home opener — which was to be played before no fans anyway — to September, with no guarantee that it ever will be played here, or anywhere, if virus trends don’t turn.
But imagine if they do, and United gets a reprieve and plays at home — which this year would be UNM’s soccer complex. Under the governor’s directive, the sidelined home team Lobo women could only watch the game online and shrug their shoulders.
And this comes two years after the governor said while then campaigning for the job that she wanted to save UNM men’s soccer. Oh, the optics.
The governor is boldly facing and acting upon an incredible challenge, to be clear. If she is insistent on no collegiate fall sports, they won’t happen, because we have to assume all those in leadership and governance positions at those universities want to keep them.
Meanwhile, we can bet that UNM and NMSU Athletics are trying desperately to schedule one-on-ones with her in hopes that they can soften her stance.
And then, the first question I would ask: “If what New Mexico United does is working and is OK, why can’t we do the same?”