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Virus places Lobo and Aggie practices, and maybe seasons, on hold

New Mexico State men’s basketball coach Chris Jans is, shown after his team won Western Athletic Conference title. The team had been practicing without state permission and now will try to work out a practice arrangement with state officials. (New Mexico State photo)

The hope, without question, for the New Mexico Lobos is to open their 2020 football season at Colorado State next Saturday as planned.

That reality, however, is the opener at CSU and for that matter even the Oct. 31 game against San Jose State scheduled to be played without fans in Albuquerque are in serious jeopardy as the record-setting week of new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico has dropped the program, through no fault of its own, out of compliance with the written guidelines set forth by state health officials.

And it’s not just football. Men’s and women’s basketball at both UNM and New Mexico State have shut down full contact team practices after the NCAA’s first allowable full day of practice on Wednesday. (The NCAA allows 30 practices before the Nov. 25 opener.)

“University athletics being able to safely conduct team activities is dependent on both the school’s adherence to stringent criteria designed to prevent any potential virus spread and the program existing in a safe environment, i.e. a county in which COVID-19 rates are not dangerously and prohibitively high,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in an email.

On Friday, the state reported a record 819 new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico – breaking several records set in consecutive days and leading to tighter public health code restrictions starting Friday.

UNM halted Thursday and Friday’s football practices on its own after eight players and one assistant coach tested positive in the program’s first positive COVID-19 tests since Aug. 28. Thursday, independent of the team’s positive tests, the state informed UNM it needed to shut down team activities until further notice.

That message that also was relayed to NMSU’s basketball teams, which had practiced Wednesday and Thursday without state approval.

Lobo football had hoped to return to practice on Saturday, but that was not approved by the state as of Friday night.

The “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” manual – one universities must agree to before being allowed to veer from the state’s public health order that would otherwise restrict full-contact practices or group limits of 10 people – states practices and games are a no-go if its county of residence has a 14-day COVID-19 case average higher than 8 per 100,000 or a positivity rate higher than 5%. On Friday, Bernalillo County’s positivity rate was 4.7% but its 14-day case average was 14.1. For Doña Ana County, home to NMSU, the numbers were worse: 9.2% and 25.5.

And neither county seems likely to be in compliance in the next week, at least.

“We are still working daily with the Governor’s Office and all state officials to do whatever we can to safely get back on the practice field and prepare for next week’s (football) game,” UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said Friday.

NMSU has posptoned football until spring. It acknowledged it had practiced basketball without approval, but plans to meet with the state’s Higher Education Department officials on Monday to try to arrive at an agreement to practice, like UNM football and basketball had done.

Meanwhile, both schools have begun to explore options for their teams, possibly even busing players to neighboring “green” counties with acceptable numbers – Valencia County for UNM and Otero County for NMSU.

That may not fly with the Governor’s Office.

“The state has worked overtime to find a way to enable college athletics to happen safely, establishing stringent protocols that would allow them to do so, but college athletics are not the number one priority, public health is,” Meyers Sackett wrote. “Anyone who cannot understand that should take a long look in the mirror. New Mexico is facing an unprecedented public health crisis and I hope university athletic directors share our concern for the public’s wellbeing, including their employees and students.

“If a university team were to purposefully attempt to go around the criteria agreed to by them and the state, they would be conducting themselves in violation of the public health order, resulting in serious consequences.”

Lest you think this is exclusively a New Mexico issue, it is not. UTEP’s Saturday game against Southern Miss has been postponed — not because El Paso County’s number of new cases or hospitalization numbers outpace the entire state of New Mexico, but due to a COVID outbreak on the Southern Miss roster.

In the Mountain West, next week’s San Diego State at UNLV opener could be on shaky ground as UNLV as “multiple positive tests” over the past two weeks have been reported by the Las Vegas Review Journal.

Ralph Russo of the Associated Press, who has been keeping the tally all season of COVID-related postponed or cancelled FBS football games on Friday reported the number is up to 33 games affected so far in a season where at least three conferences — the MWC, the Pac-12 and the MAC — have yet to start play. This weekend alone, there were nine games postponed or cancelled so far.

Despite the likelihood of postponements, the Mountain West chose to go with an eight-game schedule over eight weeks for most teams with no open spots to reschedule games before the Dec. 19 league title game.

As for college basketball, the approach was the same. While the NCAA season starts Nov. 25, the league chose to stick with an 18-game league schedule over the same period of time as in the past several years, not working in a set off date for all teams where make up games could be rescheduled.

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