Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday said she is “hopeful” that New Mexico United can again play a match in Albuquerque this season despite current state health orders precluding it.
In the same breath, she said New Mexico and New Mexico State should not take any comfort in her praise of the second-year professional soccer team and in no way softened her stance from her self-described “strong, but clear” July 21 letter to university leadership asking both to suspend their fall sports seasons, including football, due to the danger they presented.
It was a stark juxtaposition of praise for a team already playing and stern warning to the state’s two highest profile athletic departments that they should not.
“I’m hopeful (United can play a home match), and I hope that gives New Mexicans, and United, the kind of boost that they are hoping for because they are practicing COVID safe practice,” Lujan Grisham said, “but I hope it’s not the same information that our universities take away. My hope is they come to the conclusion sooner rather than later that they should postpone their contact fall sports.”
During her weekly COVID-19 update news conference Thursday, Lujan Grisham for the first time since the pandemic erupted in mid-March, made it clear that she does not view the state’s pro soccer team in the same light as football or soccer at the high school or college levels.
Football and soccer at the state high school level already have been postponed until spring, per her instruction.
“If you introduce this risk, and you have spread between your athletes and your coaches, then you have spread between the required in-person higher education activities, and it means that we upset that whole apple cart about higher education,” Lujan Grisham said. “The goal is not to do that and save lives.”
Her press secretary was far more blunt about the distinction. The Journal asked if Lujan Grisham has been so pleased with United’s ability to demonstrate it can safely handle COVID-safe practices despite playing out of state in, as she described, COVID hot spots, then “why would UNM and NMSU not be given an opportunity to prove the same” as the soccer team?
“One is a business and the other is not. One is a job and the other is not,” wrote Press Secretary Nora Meyers Sackett in an email. “Professional sports teams don’t exist on a college campus like school teams do, where viral infection would affect a great many people beyond the team.”
The lack of any such distinction between United and the state’s universities has led to questions of preferential treatment for United – owned by Peter Trevisani, who is on the governor’s Economic Recovery Council.
United has been practicing in the Albuquerque area after out-of-state matches – in areas the governor noted Thursday are producing some of the nation’s worst COVID data – amid an executive order requiring a 14-day quarantine for anyone traveling from out of state. The team has said the medical exemption to the quarantine allows them to practice because it would be medically dangerous not to, between professional matches.
It seemed to be a possible loophole both universities were hopeful would also apply to their planned out-of-state sports travel this fall.
USL Championship, the league United plays in, has regular testing of athletes and put out a 50-page return-to-play protocol for the teams to adhere to. UNM and NMSU both have plans for athletes return to campus, which includes testing that has been completed through the state’s Department of Health. And the NCAA has lengthy return-to-sport guidelines both would have to adhere to.
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez declined to comment on Thursday. NMSU AD Mario Moccia said still no decisions have been made in response to Lujan Grishan’s July 21 letter, but everything being done and planned to be done is with the safety of student athletes in mind.
“Similar to the last time this question came up, we feel like we have a tremendous COVID plan that’s been approved by a virologist and, at the time (it was approved), the state’s epidemiologist,” Moccia said. “… With that said, this athletic department is acutely aware that we will dutifully follow the direction of our campus leadership.”
Lujan Grisham noted that while she made clear her desires, she will allow decision to play fall sports at UNM and NMSU to their leadership, including the governor-appointed Boards of Regents of each university.
She also said that her “hunch” was “that UNM is leaning toward” suspending football, but NMSU was “a bit more hesitant.”
UNM has not made any such public statement. Wednesday, the Mountain West Conference of which UNM is a member, announced a plan to move forward with fall sports, including a 10-game football schedule that would start on Sept. 26, about a month later than originally planned.
“I appreciate all the different groups who are very clear that pausing is the right way to move forward,” Lujan Grisham said.
Fall sports, including football, have been suspended or canceled at the junior college, NCAA Division III, NCAA Division II and some high school levels, but not yet at the Football Bowl Subdivision (the level of football UNM and NMSU compete in) or NCAA Division I (all other UNM and NMSU sports).
The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, a Division II conference that includes New Mexico Highlands, on Thursday announced it will suspend the fall contact sports of football, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball.
“Our focus has been and always will be the mental and physical development and well-being of our student-athletes,” said NMHU AD Andrew Ehling. “Learning to deal with adversity is definitely part of a student-athlete’s development. For many of our student-athletes, the adversity of the current situation may be the hardest thing they have experienced. We are here to support our student-athletes through these times.”