Letter: College athletes ask Governor for flexibility - Albuquerque Journal

Letter: College athletes ask Governor for flexibility

A logo created by a coalition of Student Athlete Advisory Committee members of five state universities at UNM, NMSU, ENMU, NMHU and WNMU. (Courtesy image)
As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to surge in the state and across the country, college athletes at New Mexico’s five Division I and II universities are making a formal plea to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to let their body of work in adhering to safe protocols allow them to do what most colleges in 49 other states are being allowed to do.

The presidents and vice presidents of the Student Athlete Advisory Committees (SAAC) at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, Eastern New Mexico University, New Mexico Highlands and Western New Mexico University drafted a three-page letter and sent it to Lujan Grisham on Monday morning.

“Restrictions on athletic activity simply based on community positivity rates and COVID-19 spread is not indicative of our institutions’ athletics caseload,” the letter states.

The letter, which the Journal obtained a copy of and can be read in its entirety at the bottom of this article, indicated it was drafted to represent a “collective and unified group of student-athletes” with the intention to “propose considerations for future flexibility towards practice and competition policies as well as protocols regarding our health and safety.”

The letter makes clear two main points: It is not asking to not be tested in order to practice or play games, and it is not turning a blind eye to or diminishing the grim reality of what COVID-19 is doing to people around the state of New Mexico and country. Positive spreads on a team, all agree, lead to the same standard shut downs, quarantine efforts and other protocols that are aimed at stopping the spread of the virus as promptly, and safely, as possible.

“We appreciate the caution that the Governor is putting forth with all of this,” said Katharine Harston, NMSU swimmer and SAAC President as well as the SAAC representative for the entire Western Athletic Conference. “We know how safe everyone needs to be right now to get this under control, but we believe that we’ve done that so far and we believe that we can provide safe environments on our campuses.”

College sports in New Mexico, at the moment, are essentially being shut down from even holding full team practices through no fault of their own testing numbers.

All fall semester sports at the state’s Division II schools — ENMU, NMHU and WNMU — have been pushed to the spring, as have all sports other than football and men’s and women’s basketball for the D-I schools — UNM and NMSU.

It isn’t as though sports across the country aren’t facing their fair share of COVID cases, with FBS games cancelled or postponed on a regular basis each week after positive case counts. But for context on how New Mexico is handling the matter, of the 357 Division I men’s basketball programs in the country, only two (UNM and NMSU) are known to be prohibited from even practicing right now due to local health orders. There are teams on pause for positive cases on the roster or conference restrictions, but not local jurisdictional health orders, though the City of Berkeley, Calif., may have similar restrictions in place that would affect the Cal Bears.

The letter specifically identified three areas it hopes to have the governor and state health officials consider agreeing to “modest changes” to: testing requirements, practice participation numbers and the county number restrictions.

In order to be exempt from the state’s current public health order, which has such restrictions as a 14-day travel quarantine for out of state travel that would make out of state competition impossible as well as practicing restrictions for groups larger than five — the state drafted “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guidelines. Those allow for practices, competitions and travel, but only if the counties the schools reside in remain under certain COVID-19 case count limits — thresholds all exceeded at the moment after the state’s alarming spike in cases over the past month.

That clause, however, doesn’t seem to make sense to a group of athletes who feel they are doing exactly what the state is asking of all citizens in terms of COVID-safe practices of social distancing, mask wearing and regular testing. The numbers suggest that’s true, as their school protocols seem to be working despite being inside counties that aren’t getting spread of the virus under control.

Added Harston, “Obviously, cases aren’t getting any better in our state, but the fact that within our institutions, as crazy as the outside communities we’re placed in are — the majority of (the campuses tied to Monday’s letter) are in ‘red’ or ‘orange’ counties — but we still as athletic departments are all at or below 3% (positivity rates).”

The numbers cited in the SAAC letter don’t indicate the time frame from when testing started for student athletes or the overall test counts. The state’s Department of Health COVID dashboard that tracks county data in 14-day averages was last updated for the period of Oct. 13-26 and, as letter notes, show counties that have dramatically higher positivity rates than the controlled college athlete rates the schools are submitted.

For comparison sake, the positivity rates the athletes included in the letter to the governor and the DOH county numbers in which the school’s campus reside are included here (again, keep in mind this is not with exactly matching time frames):

• UNM 0.99% – Bernalillo County 7.3% (red county status)
• NMSU 2.78% – Doña Ana County 16.6% (red county status)
• ENMU 2.83% – Roosevelt County 15.6% (red county status)
• NMHU 1.17% – San Miguel County 3.4% (orange county status)
• WNMU 3.4% – Grant County 3.5% (orange county status)

As for testing, the SAAC representatives are fine with the current offseason testing requirements, but the three-times per week PCR (essentially the nasal swab tests) requirement in season might be too much for some to afford, especially the DII schools. So it asks that, like NCAA protocols require for the rest of the country, they be allowed three PCR or POC (rapid tests), which all schools can adhere to (UNM and NMSU both say they can do the PCR’s, though in the case of UNM football, which has relocated to Nevada to skirt New Mexico’s health order, their testing is being paid for by the Mountain West Conference).

New Mexico Student Athlete Proposal by Albuquerque Journal on Scribd

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