Frustrated, angry, disappointed, confused. And now, pushing back.
That was the mood Friday morning, as scores of athletes, parents and coaches from around the metro area and beyond joined together to raise their voice in opposition to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Thursday decision to cancel fall high school athletics until next year.
It proved to be a tipping point for some.
“It’s time we relied on the families to make decisions for their kids, and not an elected official who’s only going to be here for one term,” said La Cueva High football coach Brandon Back. “We’re falling apart at the seams, it feels like.”
A turnout of roughly 250 (many of the students on fall break) gathered in a parking lot at Hoffmantown Church in the Northeast Heights to begin the peaceful rally on Friday, the same day the state announced a recod high number of positive COVID-19 infections.
The rally was announced late Thursday afternoon.
The group walked an entire loop around the spacious Albuquerque Academy campus, a news helicopter whirling above the procession, and dozens of drivers honking their horns in support as they drove past.
“I know a lot of people wanted to be here but they just couldn’t do it,” Socorro High football coach Damien Ocampo said. Socorro, he said, like many communities, is struggling to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s rough right now,” he said. “Real bad. And I feel like it’s getting worse.”
Those who could not attend Friday’s rally will have another, possibly larger, stage.
Another rally, labeled a “peaceful protest” by organizers, has been announced for Sunday at noon, this one outside the Capitol building in Santa Fe. Athletes, coaches, family and friends from all corners of New Mexico are invited to attend.
Friday’s crowd was littered with athletes. Nearly every public and private high school in Albuquerque was represented, plus metro-area schools Rio Rancho, Cleveland, Los Lunas and Valencia.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we can go to a grocery store, but we can’t play football, or golf, or volleyball,” said Los Lunas High senior Tyler Kiehne, one of the state’s top football players and a UCLA commit who attended the rally. “Every state is playing around us. Everyone (here) is really frustrated.”
Then he added, “I saw (the governor) canceled fall golf. Golf courses are still open, aren’t they?”
Some came as far away as Grants and Socorro to attend and support the cause.
“If we’re all (abiding) by the rules of COVID, we should be able to play sports,” said Lanea Chavez, a Grants High senior who plays volleyball and softball. “It’s taking a big toll on everyone. We’re really upset. That’s why we’re here.”
A large majority of the protesters were in masks, as requested by event organizers. A small number were not.
The protest was not just to raise a voice about a return to athletics, but also a plea for to get students back into the classroom as thousands of kids labor to make grades in the online teaching model.
“They’re getting depressed, very down,” said Janet Thorson. She has twin sons who are athletes at Sandia High School.
The rally allowed athletes to protest in unison, which was welcome.
“I wasn’t sure how big this was gonna be,” said Academy junior cross country runner Joaquin Deprez. “It shows how important this is to everyone.”
Athletes at Friday’s rally repeatedly expressed frustration at watching student-athletes from other states compete while they are not. Lujan Grisham was frequently in the crosshairs of protesters on Friday, particularly after she said she would not change the state’s health order to allow even non-contact sports —volleyball, cross country and fall golf — to have competitions this fall. The New Mexico Activities Association already had postponed football and soccer already to early 2021, with championships planned for April and May.
On Thursday, the NMAA announced plans to reschedule volleyball and cross country for the spring semester, with spring golf going on as originally scheduled.
“I showed up because I want a change, to be part of the change,” La Cueva freshman football player and track athlete Waylon Sanchez said. “I don’t want to sit at home.”
That is what drove Ocampo to drive up from Socorro on Friday morning. He has been consistently vocal about the damage he feels Lujan Grisham’s decisions have inflicted on the state’s youth.
“All they’re doing is sending a message to kids that they’re not important,” Ocampo said. “I want to believe that she’s doing what’s safe for the state. I do. But the parent in me, the coach in me, the New Mexican in me … I have a brain in my head, and things don’t add up.”