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With that, I leave today’s newsletter in Daniel’s capable hands. There’s something interesting brewing in New Mexico, and nobody knows the Land of Enchantment better than Daniel:
Let’s talk about fall college football not happening in New Mexico
By Daniel Libit
Last week, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set after-hours #CFB Twitter abuzz when she formally requested (insofar as she put it on official letterhead) that her state’s universities suspend their autumn athletic pursuits.
Here’s how she couched it in the letter obtained by the Albuquerque Journal:
“This is an essential step we must take if we are to return to some safe and balanced new normal as quickly as possible. We must fight this virus with all the tools at our disposal – including physical distancing and the avoidance of close contact with others – so we can regain control of the spread and resume the daily activities that have been torn from us during this pandemic. The potential for contact sports later in the year or early in 2021 would of course be one of those.”
The significance of Lujan Grisham’s decree was mostly in its novelty: even now, as of this writing, no other governor has taken the step to actually call for the cancellation of fall college sports. Instead, many other governors — including New York’s Covid press conference protagonist, Andrew Cuomo — have opted to use the the allure of college sports, and specifically college football, as an incentive for their citizens to mask up and stay six feet apart.
South Carolina’s Henry McMaster — a Republican presiding over the home of this year’s college football national championship runner-up — has been among the most pessimistic state chief executives when it comes to the prospects of the upcoming season. At the beginning of this month, he explicitly raised the threat of cancellation if the state’s Covid cases continued on their upward trajectory. According to the New York Times, South Carolina is currently experiencing a 19 percent decline in its daily-case average, as compared with two weeks ago — and McMaster hasn’t reiterated those threats since.
But that’s in South Carolina, where football actually matters
For Lujan Grisham, a Democratic former congresswoman and one-time state health secretary — who is thought to be on the far end of Joe Biden’s vice presidential shortlist — the request to cancel college sports is in keeping with a hyper-proactive pandemic posture she’s asserted since March. She was among the first governors to cancel public school classes back in the spring and was reportedly the first governor to suspend high school athletic competition for this upcoming year. I’ve also learned that this was not the first college sports-related request she has issued on official letterhead.
On May 25, Lujan Grisham wrote to NCAA President Mark Emmert, following the NCAA’s Division I Council decision to allow on-campus “voluntary” athletics activities to commence on June 1. In her letter, first obtained by Extra Points, Lujan Grisham alerted Emmert to the COVID-19 situation at New Mexico State, where six athletes and three athletic department employees had already tested positive. The governor marshaled this data as a national red flag for college sports:
“What happened at New Mexico State University is indicative of what could happen at colleges, universities, classrooms and athletic programs across the country. The way this virus spreads, those are unlikely to be isolated incidents, and the tight-knit communities in which these schools operate could be at risk.
This was wise counsel, if not somewhat credulously addressed to the NCAA:
It’s critical your organization expeditiously establish new policies to support the student-athlete experience in a COVID-positive world so that we might return to some safe and balanced new normal – where we continue to fight this awful virus with all the tools we know to work and we can permit some safe and limited athletic activity for the 460,000 student athletes across our nation.
The NCAA? Expeditiously? Alright then.
Lujan Grisham has had a mercurial relationship with college sports
The subject loomed surprisingly large during the 2018 gubernatorial bid, when Lujan Grisham — along with her Republican opponent and many other state lawmakers — went on record opposing UNM’s plans to cut four Olympic sports, most notably its nationally-relevant men’s soccer program.
That debate broke down somewhat along the lines of college sports traditionalists — and football protectionists — and intercollegiate progressives, who believed that UNM was scapegoating non-revenue sports at the hand of its unfounded football aspirations.
Lujan Grisham threw in with the latter. On the stump, she went so far as to make the sports’ salvation an actual campaign promise. But once she took office, she never revisited the matter again.
Indeed, midway through her first term, Lujan Grisham has proven to be far less interested in college sports than her two gubernatorial predecessors, Bill Richardson and Susana Martinez, both of who were known as Lobo diehards to the point of being unqualified boosters.
So, were Lobo and Aggie football fans up in arms about her letter?
Yes, all six of them were quite pissed with the governor’s request. I’m teasing, of course — but only by a smidge: The Land of Enchantment has historically been more of a college basketball state and currently incorporates a college football wasteland (or desert, if we’re being geographically pertinent), which is precisely why a governor from New Mexico might feel comfortable getting out front on this issue.
To wit: New Mexico State has been toiling over the last few years in conference-less obscurity (despite a 2017 bowl bid, its first in a half-century) while New Mexico has been in a near-perpetual state of internal investigation (which kept me quite busy before now). This past fall, UNM finally paid off Bob Davie to terminate the remainder of his scandalized head coaching tenure. The school has been hoping to resurrect whatever delusions of FBS prestige it can still muster with the hiring of native son Danny Gonzalez, most recently the defensive coordinator at Arizona State, and by bringing back the septuagenerian Rocky Long — who coached the Lobos to five bowl games in the mid-aughts — in a wise-old-man/coordinator capacity.
Needless to say, if the 2020-21 season will force college programs to reconsider their football aspirations, New Mexico’s two D-I schools should be among the first in line for a gridiron reckoning.
At a pre-letter press conference earlier this month, during which time she announced the postponement of state high school football and soccer, Lujan Grisham gave a head-scratching response when asked by a reporter if she had similar intentions to delay college sports:
“I don’t have the same authority over the collegiate sport associations and their requirements,” she told the Albuquerque Journal.
The comment was a total non-sequitur, as she doesn’t need control over the NCAA in order to prevent college sports competition from taking place in her state.
As the paper pointed out: “Universities would, in fact, have to adhere to any state health orders the governor put in place, including mass gatherings and activities, on their public campuses.”
The other fly in the ointment is that the governor has seemed to look the other way when it comes to the state’s professional USL soccer team, which has continued its in-state practices, in contravention of a state-wide ban on such activities.
Perhaps that’s why NMSU and UNM have yet to acquiesce
Initially, both schools gave noncommittal, we’re-looking-into-this public statements. Then on Wednesday, New Mexico Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez told The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach that UNM and NMSU were in discussions about playing each at the start of the season, after the Aggies were nixed by UCLA and the Lobos’ game against Idaho State got moved. Your move, Gov. Lujan Grisham.
Regardless of Lujan Grisham’s letter, given the many good reasons since March to believe that neither team (nor any team) should be playing football this fall, the fact that she wrote it serves as a kind of temperature check.
If the college sports-passive governor of New Mexico won’t ultimately stop two football mediocrities from plowing into a season full of danger and futility, then I wouldn't hold my breath for South Carolina’s.
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The Intercollegiate and Extra Points are proud to partner with the College Sport Research Institute, an academic center housed within the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management at the University of South Carolina. CSRI’s mission is to encourage and support interdisciplinary and inter-university collaborative college-sport research, serve as a research consortium for college-sport researchers from across the United States, and disseminate college-sport research results to academics, college-sport practitioners and the general public. You can learn more by visiting CSRI’s website.