Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Aggressive COVID-19 testing and safe practices are the keys that provide the Mountain West Conference with the confidence it can have a 2020 football season – and the announcement Friday by the governor’s office of what is required gives the University of New Mexico a chance to play, too.
The league’s presidents voted Thursday and announced later that night that the Mountain West plans an eight-game league schedule for its 12 football-playing schools with a championship game scheduled for Dec. 19.
On Friday, MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson reiterated that any return to competition is subject to state, county and local approval for each of the 12 football teams, UNM included.
Also on Friday, Nora Meyers Sackett, the press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, spelled out the conditions in a lengthy email to the Journal:
“The state has compiled a thorough set of COVID-Safe Practices and restrictions for intercollegiate athletics that UNM – and any Division I intercollegiate athletic program in the state – will have to meet in order to proceed with larger practices and games in accordance with the MWC’s plans for an 8-game season. Those required safe-practices and guidelines include but are not limited to: strict and regular testing protocols; strict mask requirements for all personnel and players except when on the field of play; capacity limits for indoor practices and trainings (such as weight room trainings); a prohibition on spectators (non-essential personnel) at practices and games; quarantine requirements for any visiting teams that the university must accommodate; a code-of-conduct document to be signed by all participating players and personnel. Universities will continue to abide by the existing restrictions and guidelines until they have submitted a proposal in accordance with these requirements to the state and that proposal has been approved.”
On the prospect of returning to football, UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said Friday: “It’s a great opportunity. It’s great to see our kids with the excitement and joy that they have.”
The Lobos, led by first-year head coach Danny Gonzales, began their acclimation period of workouts on Friday, Gonzales said, meaning they wore helmets and shorts and worked in small groups. They plan to work in that capacity for at least the next four training sessions and hope to gain approval to fully practice after that.
The state’s public health order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 includes guidelines for amateur contact sports and has limited groups training together to 10 at most.
The MWC announced Friday that it has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to implement testing protocols and has picked up the cost for three tests with rapid results per week.
UNM will continue with its independent testing and will then receive the Quest Diagnostics testing in a little over two weeks.
UNM has had 1,060 tests for the coronavirus this year with 17 positives, Nuñez said Friday.
He said UNM plans to test more often than the three times per week protocol that the MWC is implementing. To do so, UNM will have to cut back in other areas of its athletic budget, he added.
The Mountain West says it plans to release a 2020 football schedule soon. Nuñez said the Lobos are expected to draw the same eight opponents as set by the original 2020 league schedule, though the dates are likely to be changed.
UNM’s original schedule included home games vs. Nevada, San Jose State, Boise State and Wyoming, and games at Colorado State, Utah State, Hawaii and Air Force.
The prospect of home games, albeit without spectators, is possible “if the protocols are in place,” Meyers Sackett said in the email. “The state’s travel order permits visitors to test out of the quarantine requirement if they test negative within 72 hours of arriving in the state. Visiting teams would have to get that done before they were cleared to play – and UNM would have to get negative tests for all before being cleared to practice upon return from an out-of-state game.”
In addition, the MWC is in the process of finalizing thresholds for competition interruption, monitoring test results, and other health and safety protocols that are consistent with NCAA resocialization guidelines.
Thompson said he expects all league football schools to participate in the season but acknowledged that there could be game cancellations. With the season starting so late, there will be no game postponements, he said.
The governor’s office hasn’t been specific about the “code-of-conduct” requirement mentioned in its email – Meyers Sackett said those “expectations have been communicated to school leaders.”
“The state wants to find a way to permit these schools the opportunity to ‘opt-in’ to a safe fall season, but health and safety must be the top priority, for the state and for the collegiate institutions,” Meyers Sackett said. “If the risks surge, and if these protocols are violated, the opportunity to compete is at risk – as well as, of course, the health and safety of the athletes and school personnel.”