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New reopening rules allow pro sports practices

The Pit during a game in 2018. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

As the vagabond University of New Mexico and New Mexico State men’s and women’s basketball programs continue to bounce around the Southwest to practice and play their seasons – prohibited in New Mexico due to a public health order unique to the state – it appears the framework to allow the New Mexico United soccer team to practice locally has quietly been put in place.

In October, the state released a 91-page document geared at the reopening plans called “All Together New Mexico: COVID-Safe Practices for Individuals and Employers.” In it was a section for college sports that initially was aimed at carving out an exemption for college teams to play their seasons despite the public health order prohibiting gatherings of more than five people at a time for such things as sports practices and training.

Instead, one clause said any time the COVID-19 case count in the county where the college teams reside rises to a certain level, they wouldn’t even be allowed to practice. That has led the UNM and NMSU administrations to approve temporary relocations of their teams out of state in order to compete this season.

The document was dated Oct. 13 and did not mention professional sports.

On Wednesday, the Journal learned the updated reopening document dated Jan. 6 now includes a section on professional sports that states pro teams cannot have games if their county is “red,” but specifically removed the “practice” prohibition, regardless of how high a county’s COVID-19 case count is.

That allows United, which starts its preseason practices and training in the coming weeks, to do what the universities are not being allowed to – despite meeting all other criteria.

United team owner Peter Trevisani, chosen by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to be on the Economic Recovery Council that helped formulate the reopening plans, said last summer that his team being allowed to return to Albuquerque and practice between out-of-state matches was because it would be medically dangerous for a high-level sports team not to practice between games – essentially saying it was a medical necessity to practice.

Lujan Grisham’s office agreed. It was an exemption UNM and NMSU had hoped would apply to their teams, as well.

It did not.

‘Right around the corner’

In a Zoom conference streamed online Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she has been meeting with both the New Mexico Activities Association and the state’s top universities to figure out what can be done to get sports going again. She even noted that there is data available that shows the importance of such activities for the learning process of young people.

“I am optimistic that many things – not all things – many things are really right around the corner,” Lujan Grisham said.

UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez, whose football team also had to spend six weeks relocated in Las Vegas, Nevada, to play its season, was not aware that a special section just for professional sports had been added to the state’s reopening document when the Journal asked him about it on Wednesday.

He added that, when classes start next week, he hopes to be able to give the department’s “nearly 500 student athletes” a definitive answer about whether they will have a season this semester, so those athletes who want to transfer can do so in time to enroll at other universities.

Nuñez added that UNM, as it has tried to do since the summer, will “continue to work both with our own medical experts, as well as everybody in Santa Fe, to figure out the right way to do this so our student athletes can be given the same opportunities to compete in their sports – which is what we promised them when they came here – that all the other schools are doing right now, but in the safest manner possible.”

NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia, like Nuñez, was unaware a new section pertaining to professional sports being allowed to practice had been added to the state’s reopening framework.

“I’d love to know what went into those decisions so that we can try and do the same things – try to get to the same place,” Moccia said. “I can tell you, we would move Heaven and Earth to make that happen. If there is a pathway to being able to practice in the state, we want to know about it. From a mental health for the student-athletes, logistical and financial standpoint, being able to get them all back just to practice at home again would be a huge benefit.”

‘Safer to play at home’

On Thursday night, Trevisani said that, based on the experience his organization went through in 2020 – playing the entire season on the road, though being allowed back between games – he thinks the safer path is for teams to be based in New Mexico, and is hopeful the Lobos and Aggies can do the same soon.

“It’s safer to play at home. As a team that played every match on the road last season, we know how much extra goes into protecting these athletes when we can’t be safely in New Mexico,” Trevisani said in a statement. “We believe that, with the stringent protocols they have in place, the Lobos and Aggies should have a pathway toward practicing and playing in a COVID-safe environment in our state, and we greatly appreciate the governor’s efforts to keep New Mexicans safe. We look forward to cheering on New Mexican athletes in 2021.”

While the new professional sport language technically would apply to the Albuquerque Isotopes, as well as United, John Traub, vice president and general manager of the Triple A organization, noted “it’s not really apples to apples.” In pro baseball, which is played nearly every day during the season, teams practice the same day as the games.

For now, Major League Baseball plans to proceed with its 2021 season to run concurrently with Triple-A baseball teams. Spring training is done outside New Mexico and the New Mexico portion of the Isotopes season on the field, anyway, wouldn’t apply until late March or early April.

‘One is a business, the other is not’

New Mexico remains the only state in the country with mandates prohibiting college practices from taking place. In California, there are jurisdictions implementing similar restrictions at a county level, but those aren’t allowing professional teams accommodations different from college programs.

On Thursday, in response to questions on what data or science is being used by the state to determine that college practices are a high risk to the community, but a professional soccer practice is not, spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said there are differences between business and college settings.

“There are some inherent differences between a professional and collegiate athletic environment, most notably that members of a professional team are employees that are obligated to adhere to their employers’ requirements and student athletes exist within a campus environment,” Sackett wrote.

That is consistent with what she told the Journal in August when asked why United was being praised and given a “shout-out” by Lujan Grisham in a news conference for being good public examples of adhering to COVID-safe practices. On the same day, she also said the state’s universities should shut down their sports to help the community.

“One is a business and the other is not,” Sackett told the Journal in August. “One is a job and the other is not. Professional sports teams don’t exist on a college campus like school teams do, where viral infection would affect a great many people beyond the team.”

Neither UNM nor NMSU athletes are taking any in-person classes. At both universities, the athletics facilities are located far from any main campus locations where other students might typically be congregating. UNM actually refers to the primary location of most of its athletics facilities as “South campus” – an area near University and Avenida César Chávez, more than a mile away from the main campus.

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