College sports practices back on as COVID rules eased

The NMAA state basketball championships were allowed to finish even as COVID started to emerge last March, but games at the Pit ultimately were held without fans. On Tuesday, restrictions that prevented the state’s college teams from practicing at home were lifted. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

They can come home again.

An amendment this week to the state’s “COVID-Safe Practices for Intercollegiate Sports” guidelines has opened the door for college sports teams in New Mexico to again practice in the state, contingent on strict testing protocols remaining in place.

The amendment was posted online and confirmed to the Journal via email when asked by a spokeswoman of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. No formal announcement was made by the state or either university until after news broke of the new rule.

The most impactful change in this week’s amended guidelines – officially dated Jan. 18 – was under the practice section, which essentially eliminated a clause that previously prohibited teams from practicing if the county in which the university is located had a COVID-19 case count placing that county in “red” status. Until recent weeks, almost every county in New Mexico – and still today both Bernalillo (UNM) and Doña Ana (NMSU) counties – were in “red” status.

The amendment does not yet allow for home games and does not have any impact on youth or high school sports.

UNM and NMSU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams – and the Lobo football team last fall – relocated out of the state in order to practice and play games this season.

“The state appreciates the partnership and communication with the state’s universities, as well as their commitment to protecting public health and safety, and we look forward to our continued efforts to work together,” Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for the governor, wrote in an email to the Journal.

The public dialogue between Santa Fe and the state’s universities on the topic of playing sports in a pandemic hasn’t always been upbeat, and Lujan Grisham wrote letters both to NCAA President Mark Emmert and to each of the state’s universities in the summer warning of the dangers of playing sports.

But with the news on Tuesday came a more celebratory, optimistic tone.

UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said that while he cannot yet estimate how much relocations of the three programs will cost, for now he is just happy the department’s athletes can proceed with their sports safely in Albuquerque.

“It’s really gratifying to know that they’re going to have the chance to do it,” Nuñez said. “… I do want to stress how appreciative we are of everyone in the governor’s office – Gov. Lujan Grisham, (Higher Education Secretary) Stephanie Rodriguez, the chief of staff, Dr. (David) Scrase – everybody who’s had a part in allowing us to be able to put our information on the table and have that dialogue.

“And, honestly, it was bigger than just UNM. It was the opportunity to have that conversation and help UNM and all the state higher ed institutions.”

Not game time yet

While practices are a go, home games at both the college and professional level remain off limits.

The newest guidelines for both college and pro sports include the identical following language:

“For a game, competition or scrimmage to occur … (the college or pro team) must be located and playing in a county with a 14-day average daily case count of fewer than eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of under five (5) percent 14 days prior to the scheduled contest.”

Last week, the Journal reported that the addition of professional sports to the guidelines dated Jan. 6 allows for teams like New Mexico United to practice if adhering to the same testing protocols the universities have been adhering to since October. At the time, college teams were still barred from having practices.

A comment from the governor’s office last week was similar in nature to the one sent to the Journal in August in response to a question asking why United was allowed to play games out of state and return to Albuquerque and practice – and universities were not.

“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.

Neither UNM nor NMSU athletes are taking in-person classes and the vast majority of their athletic practice and training facilities are located away from the main campus and areas most accessible to the general student populations.

What’s next?

Most Lobo sports athletes, other than basketball players, have returned to campus in the past couple of weeks; classes, though remote, resumed on Tuesday.

Nuñez said that after undergoing a two-week quarantine and a testing clearance, all will be able to resume either preseason or offseason workouts.

UNM men’s basketball team is the listed home team for a pair of games this week in St. George, Utah, and will return afterward. Future “home” game sites have not been determined, though a return to Lubbock Christian University’s Rip Griffin Center is an option.

The Lobo women’s team has already decided to play its season as the road team everywhere it goes, and that may continue, Nuñez said.

Both teams again can practice in the Rudy Davalos practice facility and even on the Pit floor, despite the arena’s concourse level being used for a mass vaccination operation overseen by the UNM Health Sciences Center.

“We’ve made some provisions to separate the spaces that would allow us to practice downstairs while this is being conducted upstairs,” Nuñez said.

Locations for spring sports competitions remain uncertain.

The Lobo swimming and diving team last week announced it was opting out of its season and is not expected to resume it.

The NMSU men’s basketball team, currently awaiting clearance to resume practices after another recent round of positive cases on the team, will stay in its Phoenix hotel location until the team’s quarantine period is over, then return.

Locations for Aggies games – basketball or spring sport competitions – have not been determined.

Prep sports

The state’s high school football coaches met virtually with New Mexico Activities Association Executive Director Sally Marquez on Tuesday to discuss the status of the 2021 spring semester season.

The season has been scheduled to begin with practices on Feb. 1, but the state has not yet approved that calendar.

All teams can do for the moment is non-contact work in a limited pod structure, with no more than one coach and four athletes in a single pod.

Marquez told the Journal that coaches on Tuesday asked her organization to do everything it can to stage a season this spring, even if that means pushing back the Feb. 1 start date a few weeks.

The first games are scheduled the weekend of Feb. 19-20.

Two other fall high school sports – volleyball and cross country – are not slated to begin until Feb. 15. Soccer has a current start date on the NMAA calendar of March 1.

Journal preps editor James Yodice contributed to this article.

 

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