Vaccines strongly encouraged, but not required for UNM football

New Mexico head coach Danny Gonzales had to wear masks and get COVID tests last season, as shown in the Dec. 12 football game vs. Fresno State in Las Vegas, Nevada. He wants his players to get COVID-19 vaccines ahead of the 2021 season. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

LAS VEGAS, Nev. – A year ago, the games went on for the University of New Mexico Lobo football team, even if doing so required a full relocation to Henderson, Nevada, due to COVID-19 public health restrictions preventing them from practicing or playing in their home state.

To ensure the games go on this year, Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales sees a much simpler path: get vaccinated.

“Last year you did the best you could. You tested. You tried to keep everybody safe. I think we did a good job doing that,” Gonzales said Wednesday at the Mountain West Conference football media days at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

“This year, you have solutions. There’s a vaccine. There are opportunities to keep yourself safe and keep your community safe.”

While neither the University of New Mexico nor the Mountain West Conference will mandate college athletes get vaccinated this coming sports season, their hope that the athletes choose to do so anyway is clear.

And the incentive to do so, beyond the obvious hope that it prevents one from contracting the novel coronavirus, is that it makes playing games much easier.

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said on Wednesday from the media days that players this coming season will simply be put into two categories: vaccinated and unvaccinated.

“Vaccinated (players) play on,” Thompson said. “Social distancing, masking, etc., will not be required. Testing will not be required. Unvaccinated? Testing will be required and we’re looking at the probability (in football at least) of at least three antigen (tests) and or one PCR test (per week). It will be at the expense of the university.”

The North Carolina State baseball team last month was removed from the College World Series stemming from safety protocols that were in place from positive COVID-19 tests that might not have been necessary in the first place if the team had a higher percentage of vaccinated players.

The Mountain West has said its final guidelines have not yet been approved by its Board of Directors. But the NCAA recommends 80% vaccination before relaxing such guidelines as regular testing and contact tracing protocols that might require anyone with contact with a person who tests positive to then be tested, whether they are vaccinated or not. That would open the door to more chances players could be deemed unavailable to play.

The Mountain West says it will not postpone or reschedule games this season if one team has too many COVID-19 positives on the roster. Now, those games will count as forfeits.

“Last year, there was no vaccine,” Thompson said. “Last year, there was not a choice to be made. This year, there is.”

Thompson said seven Mountain West football teams are 88% vaccinated while the league overall (for football) is at 73%, based on surveying member schools.

“There is a solution,” Gonzales added. “(Players) just have to make the choice.”

UNM football had 77% of its players vaccinated as of two weeks ago, Gonzales said, and the hope is it will be well beyond 80% long before the season starts.

Vaccinations were available to Lobo players at the Tow Diehm facility on June 17 and July 8, Gonzales said, with another session coming soon.

“Convenience is a big factor for that age group and we made it convenient for them,” Gonzales said.

NMSU is taking a similar stance for its fall sports.

“NMSU students and employees are highly encouraged to get vaccinated, but will not be required to do so. This includes our student athletes,” the school said in a prepared statement sent to the Journal. “The NCAA is still recommending testing and masking for those not vaccinated and NMSU will follow this guidance.

A year ago, guidelines in place at the state level – and ultimately at the direction of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham who also sent letters to both UNM and NMSU strongly advising both against playing any sports in the fall of 2020 – ultimately led to UNM football relocating to Nevada.

That also affected the New Mexico State football season, though as an independent ot didn’t have a conference schedule to play, so the Aggies ultimately were forced to punt on the 2020 season altogether. The Aggies played a pair of games against FCS level opponents in the spring played in El Paso’s Sun Bowl.

This year, the Governor’s Office has made a very public push to get as many people in the state vaccinated, and while that includes athletes at all the state’s universities, there are no specific requirements mandating vaccination.

Nora Meyers Sackett, Press Secretary for Lujan Grisham, did note in an email that the Governor’s Office was “certainly appreciative and supportive” of the recent vaccination events for athletes UNM made available.

OUTSIDE THE BUBBLE: UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez and NMSU’s AD Mario Moccia said decisions will be made soon on what to do about non-athletes or UNM employees and their access to players this season.

Notre Dame recently announced any media member wanting to cover their team in person will have to show proof of vaccination and both Nuñez and Moccia said policies about boosters normally allowed to travel with the football team on chartered flights might include vaccination requirements.

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