Should New Mexico’s college teams be crossing state lines to avoid pandemic restrictions?

Under siege by a surge of COVID-19, the state of New Mexico has prohibited gatherings of more than five people – a restriction that makes it impossible to play football and basketball at state high schools and universities.

So then what should these teams do with themselves in the meantime?

New Mexico high school sports simply canceled or postponed their seasons until 2021. But the state’s only two Division I universities took an alternate approach: Teams from the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State instead packed up and left the state this month to avoid the state health order, raising the eyebrows of public health experts and the governor’s office.

By crossing state lines, they can continue practicing under looser restrictions, even if it means relocating more than 350 miles away to the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix, the temporary home of the New Mexico State men’s basketball team.

“We’re all going to have less distractions” at the resort, NMSU men’s basketball coach Chris Jans said last week. “No one really has much to go home to now. … To me, it feels like we’re somewhere for a holiday tournament, or we’re somewhere at a site for an NCAA tournament, where it’s ball, ball, ball. You’re eating and drinking basketball. That’s it. That’s the feel I get.”

His team isn’t the only one on the road indefinitely, reflecting the ongoing tension between pandemic restrictions designed to protect the public versus the practical challenges in college sports of abiding by them. Besides the NMSU men’s team, the Aggies women’s basketball team has relocated to Tucson. In Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico’s football team has moved out to Las Vegas while its men’s and women’s basketball teams have migrated to new temporary homes in West Texas.

The New Mexico State University menÕs basketball team practices inside the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix. (Photo: Courtesy of New Mexico State University)

“Traveling out of state for anything other than absolutely essential need is not a good message for a public institution to send amid an ongoing pandemic,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

TIP-OFF TROUBLES: COVID-19 hampers men's college basketball's start, causing scheduling headaches

RE-RANKING FOOTBALL TEAMS: Northwestern, Oklahoma move forward in NCAA Re-Rank 1-127

She noted the wave of college and pro sports events being canceled around the country.

“It is clear that what the NCAA and these leagues are trying to do is not necessarily working and you wonder at what point they reconsider the risk and put the country – not to mention the long-term health of their athletes, coaches, and their families – first,” she wrote in an e-mail to USA TODAY Sports.

The college administrators and coaches see it differently. Out of all 130 athletic departments in major college sports, none arguably has been more disrupted by COVID-19 than New Mexico State’s.

The Aggies’ football team is one of only three teams in major college football to cancel its entire fall season and then stick with that decision, along with Connecticut and Old Dominion. That decision was necessary in large part because the Aggies are an independent team that would have faced challenges finding opponents to play, unlike UNM, which has an automatic slate of opponents as a member of the Mountain West Conference.

The Aggies still plan to play three football games at home starting in February against three lower-division teams, provided state restrictions are lifted by then.   

“If we can’t practice at home and play those games at home, then we’re going to make plans to do just what our basketball teams are doing,” NMSU football coach Doug Martin told USA TODAY Sports.

Meanwhile, both Aggies’ basketball teams have left their home state and will work on their academic requirements online much like they had been on campus in Las Cruces.

NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia noted that the teams from New Mexico, along with Portland and Portland State in Oregon, were the last major college programs facing health orders that limited full basketball practices. His athletic department is facing a $3 million shortfall this year with a budget that had about in $28 million in revenue in 2018-19, including about $17 million in combined support from the university, government and student fees.

Cancelling the basketball seasons wasn’t really an option, he said. After all, he said he promised recruits and their parents they would be able to compete for NCAA tournament berths. He also worried about the possibility of players leaving the team to play elsewhere if NMSU basketball teams shut down.

“When there is talk that, 'Hey, New Mexico State may not practice. They may not play,’ that’s when the sharks come out, and quite frankly we’ve got a lot of high-level players that I’m sure a lot of other schools would not mind poaching if we didn’t have a season and they were able to transfer immediately,” Moccia said. “I don’t like to dwell on that, because that’s negative. But that is reality.”

The New Mexico State University menÕs basketball team practices inside the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix. (Photo: Courtesy of New Mexico State University)

Normalcy vs. pandemic safety rules

Moccia said the cost for the team to stay at the resort for five weeks is $78,000, with cost-reduction help coming from the Arizona Sports & Entertainment Commission, led by his friend Nikki Balich.  She helped bring the Aggies into Phoenix, where they have practiced on a hardcourt installed in a ballroom at the resort.

“It’s really about student-athletes, and it’s really about trying to get back to somewhat a normal life, as normal as we can,” Balich said.

From her perspective, this helps the local economy by filling hotel rooms. The mission of her commission includes bringing sports events to the state and supporting amateur sports.

“Everything has been so shut down, so they’re just so happy to be working, to have people in their hotel,” she said.

The limit on organized public events in Arizona is 50 people unless it has been approved by a local government.

Public health experts contacted by USA TODAY Sports still say high-profile state sports teams are not helping the situation by evading local health orders to play sports.

“Others see these behaviors and copy them, creating a larger public health crisis,” Virginia Tech epidemiologist Charlotte Baker wrote in an e-mail. “Public health rules aren't made lightly, especially when it involves restricting movement of citizens that rely on us to help them stay safe. Getting around the rules by changing locality harms the towns that these teams rely on for a new place to play and shows children and those that run youth organizations that the rules do not apply because they disagree.”

Meanwhile, Arizona has not been immune to the virus spread. Arizona State University released a report last week that projected the state’s hospital capacity will be exceeded in December “based on the amount of community spread we are seeing now.”

“They’re moving to a place that also has increasing cases and risks of exposure,” said Leila Barraza, associate professor at the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. “You’re going to interact with more people when you’re traveling. You’re safer at home.”

In an effort to keep their seasons alive, players from the New Mexico’s five Division I and II universities even wrote a letter to the governor this month asking to ease restrictions. It didn’t succeed, leaving in place the state’s criteria for hosting college sports practices. Those criteria state that the college must be located 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 5%.

If not, they are required to stick to the limit on gatherings as long as they’re in New Mexico. The home counties of UNM and NMSU both reported data that greatly exceeded those thresholds recently.

“It is not against the order to leave the state,” Moccia said. “We’re not violating any rules.”

UNM has estimated it costs about $70,000 per week to house the football team near Las Vegas.

“Our athletic director Eddie Nunez and football coach Danny Gonzales have both stated that we would much rather be able to be in Albuquerque, but this is the only recourse to give our student-athletes an opportunity to play,” athletic department spokesman Frank Mercogliano wrote in an e-mail.

UNM and NMSU both have reported low positivity rates among team members since the summer as part of regular testing for COVID. Players for both colleges also are aware of the stakes in the meantime after packing up to live on the road indefinitely.

“I’ve had a couple of family members who have gotten (COVID-19) and passed away from it, and a couple of family members who have gotten it recently and been hospitalized,” NMSU guard Evan Gilyard II told USA TODAY. “Yeah, I mean I’m scared of it, but you know, I feel like how I approach it every day and take care of myself and make sure I’m using hand sanitizer and wearing my mask and everything, then I’m putting myself into a great situation to not get it. I’m more worried about giving it to anybody else than me catching it.”

He packed three duffel bags and a suitcase for his trip to Phoenix and said he’s grateful to still be playing. So is his teammate, Donnie Tillman, who compared staying at a resort in Phoenix to his high school days, when his summer-league team would travel and stay at nice hotels.

“It’s a weird, funky year,” Tillman said. “Some things you’re going to have to give. Some things are taken away from you. But I’m glad we came up with a plan.”

To help pay for the extended trips, NMSU has solicited donations and has raised more than $28,000 toward its goal of $100,000, as of Tuesday, according to the donation website.

Sackett of the governor’s office said “the pandemic stinks, and we all hate it, and we all wish we could carry on with our lives, but it isn't safe.” The state has had more than 1,400 COVID deaths.

“We understand the difficulties and frustrations in not being able to do the things we enjoy, including many things that are the focus of our lives, but public health must be the number one priority, and the state is not making exceptions to the public health order for the purpose of athletics,” she said. “It's essential to minimize all unnecessary risk in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 and do everything we can to save lives.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

Source: Read Full Article