Hats off to the New Mexico State University Faculty Senate.
Dismayed by a contract extension and pay raise for the university’s athletics director, the Faculty Senate flexed its muscles Thursday night and approved a lengthy letter to university leaders, saying faculty members find the contract extension of Mario Moccia “astonishing and deeply disheartening.” It is the latest fallout from scandals at NMSU that resulted in the men’s basketball season being prematurely canceled, internal and external investigations, and now lawsuits.
With that as a backdrop, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is absolutely correct to pledge to add hazing and abuse legislation to the 2024 session agenda. New Mexico is one of just six states without a hazing law.
So how did we get here?
On April 7, his last day as chancellor, Dan Arvizu announced Moccia’s contract extension. And, for many, it hasn’t gone over well.
An attorney for ex-Aggie William “Deuce” Benjamin Jr. was “shocked, shocked” Moccia received a five-year contract extension and $145,000 raise over that period for his oversight, or lack thereof, of NMSU athletics.
A lawsuit from two former Aggies claims NMSU did nothing to protect student-athletes from sexual predators. Former player Shak Odunewu says an assistant coach laughed when he reported an eyewitness account of teammates sexually assaulting Benjamin before a game. “‘Yo, can you tell them to stop?'” Odunewu recalled saying. “He just jokingly laughed it off and was like, ‘What do you want me to do?'” Odunewu alleges he also was sexually assaulted by three older teammates.
Benjamin said three months later, at his father’s urging, he went to campus police with details of another time he was sexually assaulted by teammates. The police report led to Arvizu canceling the season and firing head coach Greg Heiar. Adding insult to injury, Benjamin, a former prep Player of the Year at Las Cruces High, says new head coach Jason Hooten told him it was in his best interest to transfer to finish his career.
Locker room hazing was once part of a “boys will be boys” and “suck it up if you want to be part of the team” mentality. We should be way past that. It is inconceivable a coach would not take such accusations seriously, especially if they witnessed them.
“My child has been failed. My family has been failed,” said Benjamin Jr.’s father, William Benjamin, a former NMSU star basketball player who’s on the school’s All-Century Team. “And as a father, I feel like I failed my son by putting him in this situation. As a former player at New Mexico State University, no behavior like this was ever present, nor would it have been tolerated.”
The fact these types of incidents still occur underline the need for legislation and the fact school coaches, administrators, counselors and parents can not be complacent. Obviously this culture still exists, and the adults in the room should be on high alert.
Getting back to NMSU, it appears school officials, including Moccia, tolerated way too much even before the hazing allegations. Consider:
• No basketball players were disciplined after participating in a brawl at an Aggie home football game last fall, which was videotaped and viewed by many.
• That altercation led to a fatal shootout on the University of New Mexico campus in the early morning hours of Nov. 19. Several NMSU basketball players broke curfew and were seen going to the scene and retrieving the gun that fired the fatal shot. Yet, three players received a mere one-game suspension. The shooter, Mike Peake, who was injured and couldn’t play anyway, eventually was kicked off the team.
• NMSU men’s basketball coaches gave police the runaround for several hours before finally handing over Peake’s semi-automatic pistol, computer tablet and cellphone that mysteriously ended up at the Las Cruces home of an NMSU Athletics Department administrator. Yet coaches remained in place. It’s unclear what role Moccia played that day, but surely he was involved in the lack of serious consequences meted out.
Arvizu tried to frame a paid law firm’s investigation as positive, saying the UNM shooting investigation didn’t identify failures by the university to meet its legal obligations. Really? What about concealing evidence from police and coaches not returning their calls?
In the wake of the hazing/sexual assault allegations, NMSU on Wednesday released an executive summary of an investigation conducted by another law firm it hired that recommended the school hire a third party to conduct hazing-prevention training and another outside group to investigate NMSU’s response to the hazing allegations and their investigations of them.
Outside reviews are critical. NMSU can’t be relied on to investigate itself. Attorney General Raúl Torrez says a criminal investigation is underway and investigators are assigned to the case. That’s where the case belongs.
Higher Education Secretary Stephanie M. Rodriguez has demanded NMSU review its entire athletic program. She also wants a review of a specific interaction between Benjamin and Hooten to determine if Hooten retaliated against Benjamin for coming forward — necessary as retaliation against a whistleblower is illegal.
Rodriguez is absolutely right to call out NMSU and call on all N.M. colleges and universities to review anti-hazing policies. Schools of all levels should do this.
And legislation should address all grades. It needs to make crystal clear our state is a no-hazing zone, allegations are taken seriously and there are consequences for taking part in/not acting to stop abuse and sexual assault too many downplay under the label “hazing.”
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.