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Gov.’s office shoots down NMSU’s return-to-play ambition

NMSU’s Pan American Center. (Geoff Grammer/Albuquerque Journal)

It didn’t last long.

For a while Tuesday afternoon, there was optimism that a 5-0 Board of Regents vote approving a return-to-play plan for the New Mexico State University men’s and women’s basketball teams had cleared the way for the Aggies to actually get back on the practice court – just two weeks away from the start of the season – despite the state’ public health order clearly prohibiting them to do so.

And while athletic department officials said immediately after the meeting that the plan was to get back to practice, the feeling of celebration wasn’t long-lived.

With the backdrop of yet another grim day of new COVID-19 case numbers – the state reported 1,266 new cases and 14 additional deaths on Tuesday – the governor’s office quickly made clear it is in no mood for schools thinking they can skirt restrictions – no matter how safe they believe their plan to be.

“There are no exceptions to the state public health order, and violations of it will result in consequences,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The Journal had asked if the Governor would actually go as far as to shut down practices.

“I would expect the leaders of an institution of higher education to know that legal directives can’t just be ignored,” she added.

After a near two-hour meeting with doctors, school officials, a student-athlete and others telling why they believed in a plan to “bubble” the Aggies men’s and women’s basketball teams in student housing on campus and continue with heavy testing protocols, the regents approved a plan that has basically already been shot down last week by state officials.

It was one largely, but not entirely, based on the state’s “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guidelines that would make the UNM Lobos and NMSU Aggies exempt from the public health order, and able to practice and play their sports, with testing protocols in place and adherence to strict guidelines.

But that plan from the state is null and void, it says, if the county the university resides in has a 14-day average case count higher than eight per 100,000 or a positivity rate higher than 5 percent. Doña Ana County, as of the latest data provided by the New Mexico Department of Health, had a 14-day average from Oct. 13-26 of 57.9 and a positivity rate of 16.6%.

Despite those statistics, NMSU officials pointed out, their basketball teams were showing much better numbers – zero positives test results in 171 tests for the women’s basketball team and two positives in 200 tests for the men. They credited the teams adhering to safe practices and a bubble plan that would require athletes to download an app that tracks their movement to see if they leave campus, which would assist in catching positives early enough to prevent spread and keeping them isolated from others to spread it to in the first place.

“I can’t think of a safer place for our students to be than on campus,” said Regents Vice Chair Ammu Devasthali before reading a cumbersome motion that she acknowledged had been prepared with the help ahead of time by the school’s general counsel.

“It’s a safe campus, then if you create a bubble within our campus to have the athletes practice would be ideal, but we all know that sometimes the ideal doesn’t happen.”

The motion that passed had one key addition to the state’s plan – a clause that essentially nullifies the county numbers element.

“If Doña Ana County does not meet the criteria,” NMSU’s plan states, “practices, games, competitions and scrimmages can occur with special permission/approval from the Chancellor.”

Chancellor Dan Arvizu having the authority to let NMSU basketball teams practice is not something that seems OK with the governor’s office, or the state’ Higher Education Department.

“Asking the State of New Mexico to make special accommodations for intercollegiate sports is a recipe for an outbreak and large-scale rapid response efforts in the event of a COVID-positive case,” said Acting HED Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez in a prepared statement to the Journal.

NMSU maintains it has never intended to break any laws and is still looking for a compromise with the Department of Health to make the season a reality without having to relocate out of state . That’s another option on the table for the team and one the UNM football team has already taken by moving to Las Vegas, Nev., in order to practice fully and play.

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