NM State Board of Regents approve return to action, Governor’s office doesn’t approve, Aggies left to pursue other options

NMSU

LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO (KTSM) – ‘Round and ’round they go.

New Mexico State’s Board of Regents voted 5-0 to approve a plan for the Aggies’ athletics programs to safely practice and play on Tuesday, but Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office quickly shut down the decision, citing the state of New Mexico’s current COVID-19 public health orders.

The plan approved by the Board, which the Aggies have already partially implemented, is a bubble, similar to what the NBA used with great success in its restart over the summer, as KTSM initially reported in October. NMSU has moved its men’s and women’s basketball players into on-campus living facilities (at a cost of $2,000 per day); all athletes are taking online classes, with meals being delivered to them.

Per NCAA regulations, they’re being tested for COVID-19 three times per week. The NMSU women’s basketball team has not had a positive case of COVID-19 since the university began testing back in May; the men’s team has had just two cases since August, and only one player test positive. Currently, the Aggies are covering the cost of testing; the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) only pays for testing for officials (all season) and for its member institutions during conference tournaments and championships.

According to the Aggies plan – which can be found in full at the bottom of this article – NMSU would practice and play games in Las Cruces, as well as on the road. Opposing teams would have to adhere to the same strict guidelines as NMSU.

In their approval, the Board of Regents put forth this motion:

  • to the extent in compliance with any applicable Public Health Order: to implement the return-to-athletics plan substantially as presented – subject to the board of regents’ right at any time to modify or revoke this authorization as that Public Health Order requires – so that our student athletes can:
    • prepare to participate in athletic competition; and
    • participate in any actual intercollegiate competition upon NMSU’s verification that each applicable conference official and counterpart institution has instituted health-and-safety protections that at least meet those under this authorization; and
  • if compliance with any applicable Public Health Order cannot be achieved under any then-current return-to-athletics plan: to explore any alternative arrangement that allows NMSU’s student athletes safely to participate in any respective sport for which they have already invested considerable efforts.

In layman’s terms, the Board approved the plan, with the idea that all NMSU athletics programs would have to adhere to the state’s public health guidelines, and if that was not possible, then other arrangements would have to be explored. Initially, it seemed like a win for the Aggies, getting the Board’s blessing.

“I think the reason the bosses were able to give that support is because we have outstanding testing numbers, and not just in men’s and women’s basketball,” said NM State Director of Athletics Mario Moccia. “Our positivity rate is significantly lower than our county and our state. I think through the plan you see we have substantial buy-in with our student athletes.”

Currently, NMSU and New Mexico are the only two schools in NCAA Division 1 (out of 357 member institutions) not permitted to practice.

However, full practices and games, and any workouts exceeding five people; as well as travel in and out of the state of New Mexico without quarantining 14 days is currently not permitted per the governor’s COVID-19 regulations and therefore, the majority of NMSU’s return-to-play plan violates the governor’s orders.

Additionally, Doña Ana County (and all counties in the state) must have a 14-day average daily case count of less than eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of under 5 percent. If the numbers exceed those marks, then the Aggies cannot participate in full practices, per the governor’s orders.

Currently, while Doña Ana County’s numbers exceed the state limit, the positivity rate at NMSU is below 3 percent, which gave some at NMSU hope that an exception could be made for athletics.

Initially, NMSU officials had hoped the governor would work with the university in successfully implementing its return-to-play plan, with NMSU president John Floros and chancellor Dan Arvizu saying they would contact the New Mexico Department of Health to see about a potential exception for the Aggies.

However, that idea was quickly shut down by the governor’s office in a statement released to KTSM on Tuesday.

“There are no exceptions to the state public health order, and violations of it will result in consequences,” Lujan Grisham’s office said. “I would expect the leaders of an institution of higher education to know that legal directives can’t just be ignored.”

Included with the governor’s statement was a statement from Acting HED Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez.

“Although many colleges, athletic directors, and student athletes are eager to get back to the court, field or track, we must collectively commit ourselves to prioritizing public health. With cases surging at more than 1,200 cases per day, a weekly high for virus deaths, and hospital beds filling rapidly, we must make tough decisions that will save the lives of New Mexicans including students, faculty, and staff members at our state’s colleges and universities,” Rodriguez wrote.”

She continued, “Every citizen in the state must adjust to the ongoing changes at this time. 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. Positivity rates are high in our counties and low at higher education institutions because our higher education leaders, faculty, and staff members are collaborating with the state leaders to ensure that all COVID-safe practices are adhered to at all times. We must also expect that from athletics.”

After the governor’s response, KTSM reached out to NMSU officials for comment with regards to a path forward, but for now the Aggies say they will comply with the governor and will not practice or play games.

“The university will not violate any laws or restrictions put forth by the state of New Mexico,” said NMSU spokesperson Justin Bannister on Tuesday night.

With the state issuing a swift and strong rebuttal to the Aggies’ plan, NMSU is left to continue searching for alternative options to practice and play this season.

Those options were presented to the Board of Regents, and included practicing in Las Cruces, but playing all games outside of New Mexico; and moving all operations outside of Las Cruces to another city, like El Paso. There is precedent for that, as the University of New Mexico’s football team is currently operating completely out of Las Vegas, NV.

However, multiple Regent members expressed their discomfort with athletics setting up home base in El Paso given the massive amount of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Sun City.

“The part about El Paso really concerns me because the numbers are absolutely off the charts in El Paso right now,” said Board member Ammu Devasthali. “I think that might not want to be something we keep as an option.”

With the season just 15 days away, NMSU has yet to release a nonconference schedule for its basketball teams, and it may not have one for awhile, as Moccia said the uncertainty surrounding the programs has made it immensely difficult to put a schedule together.

Tuesday’s carousel followed a push on Monday from student-athletes from across New Mexico, asking the Governor to allow them to play.

If Tuesday’s events regarding New Mexico State are any indication, it does not seem likely that any such exceptions will be made any time soon.

NMSU’s full return-to-play plan can be found here:

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