For decades, November in New Mexico for so many has meant college basketball.
In good times and bad, the support the state has shown for Lobos and Aggies basketball has been undeniable.
But, as with so many things in 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into what we once knew.
With just two and a half weeks before the 2020-21 NCAA basketball season is set to begin, it now appears the coming days will lead to a showdown between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose public health order prevents teams from even practicing in groups larger than five, and the leadership of the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University.
After Oregon’s governor last week allowed Portland and Portland State to practice, UNM and NMSU remain as the only two of 357 men’s Division I programs not being allowed to practice due to state jurisdictional health orders. (Some have paused practices for positive tests on the team or conference decisions).
“What other states are doing is their business,” said Tripp Stelnicki, Communications Director for Lujan Grisham. “I wouldn’t say any state in the country right now is an exemplar of keeping people healthy and alive. We’re going to keep working on it here.”
At stake are the obvious health concerns the order is designed to help mitigate, but also the prospect of millions of dollars in lost revenue that could jeopardize the chance for the schools’ Olympic sports to play in the spring. Both schools have strict testing and health protocols in place approved by their own medical experts and, previously, the Governor’s Office before recent spikes in cases changed that.
The Journal has learned that neither UNM nor NMSU feel if they decide to play it would be as a move of defiance of the Governor’s health order. And they certainly aren’t trying to invite a potentially embarrassing episode of authorities having to shut down a practice if they proceed with them. Rather, “We feel we’re on solid ground,” one university source said, with their existing testing and health protocols to proceed in a safe manner for the players, coaches and surrounding communities, even if the public health order doesn’t spell out a way for them to do so.
UNM has already relocated its football team to Nevada to circumvent the public health order and housed its basketball teams in a hotel in Moriarty for a few days in the past week to get in practices in at a high school in “green” Torrance County. UNM thought the COVID cases numbers are low enough in Torrance County to allow for practices, though the Governor’s Office has since said traveling to a “green” county just to practice is not allowed.
Last week, after a proposal to “bubble” its Aggies basketball teams in vacant on-campus housing, its practices were shot down by Lujan Grisham in what the Journal learned was a heated call with NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu.
NMSU practiced at least once in the past week anyway, the Journal has learned.
On Oct. 14, the NCAA opened basketball practice, allowing teams to get in 30 full practices over the 42-day build-up to the season. UNM and NMSU each practiced for one or two days before the state’s new public health order was imposed, overriding a “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guideline that had allowed them to practice if case counts in their counties didn’t soar above certain levels – which they have in Bernalillo and Doña Ana Counties.
Now, NMSU has called for a “special meeting” of its Board or Regents for Tuesday with one action item on the agenda: “NMSU Athletics – Preparing to compete in the WAC.”
NMSU, and UNM could be forced into some tough decisions, that include three general options:
• The schools adhere exactly to the existing public health order, essentially shutting down their basketball seasons, since practices or games in groups larger than five aren’t allowed and out-of-state travel requires 14-day quarantine periods upon return;
• The Governor’s Office agrees to carve out an exemption that allows them to practice as long as stringent testing and other health protocols remain in place;
• The schools go forward, skirting, at least in part, the public health order by proceeding to practice and play under their own health plans, potentially forcing Lujan Grisham to decide if a national story with police shutting down practices would be worth it. Or, this option could include some form of relocating out of state, either for the entire season or to play games and return home for practices.
All of this is happening with the virus growing more deadly in New Mexico, like most of the country. Saturday, the state reported 1,287 new cases, pushing the seven-day average of new cases over 1,000 for the first time. There were 19 new deaths reported, and hospitalizations continue to an alarming increase with 77% of hospital beds in the state, and 80% of ICU beds, now occupied.
Sources with both universities cited a frustration with the Governor’s allowance for New Mexico United, the Albuquerque-based professional soccer team, to play its season out of state but be exempt from travel quarantine requirements and practicing limits despite having testing protocols that aren’t as stringent as what each school is undertaking now.
United, owned by Peter Trevisani, who is on the Governor’s Economic Recovery Council, said not practicing between out-of-state games would be far too risky for his players.
The Lobo football team three weeks ago had nine players test positive, shutting down practice. All players were isolated and quarantined and now recovered. Overall, UNM has conducted 4,467 PCR tests of players, coaches, staff and others around the teams since June 22 with 42 positives for an overall positivity rate in that sample group of 0.94%.
In the past week alone, the football team had 498 PCR tests without a positive result. The men’s and women’s basketball teams had 140 tests with one positive, who had two negative tests and one positive this week and is now isolated and in quarantine, per a university official.
At NMSU, the women’s basketball team has had zero positive tests out of 148 since late August and the men’s team has had 2 positives out of 175. That’s a combined basketball positivity rate of 0.62%.