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New Mexico Programs Go to Extremes to Keep Playing

Jason Scott

Both of the state of New Mexico’s Division I athletics programs are taking a unique approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of New Mexico is participating in football this season, but has relocated football operations to Las Vegas where it will play its “home” games. According to Bleacher Report, the entire operation will cost the Lobos $70,000 per week — an eye-popping figure out of context — but one that New Mexico AD Eddie Nunez believes makes sense.

“If I'm going to spend $300,000 to put our team in Las Vegas, but I know that at the end of the day, I'm going to get $3.7 million or zero [to not play at all], I think I'd go for 3.7," Nunez told The Athletic, referencing expected payouts from the Mountain West and the College Football Playoff. "To give our kids a chance to play with the circumstances we were dealing with [in the state of New Mexico], it was the right decision.”

The Lobo relocation was the result of a spike in COVID-19 cases in Bernalillo County, which caused the program to cancel its season opener against Colorado State. The decision to make the move was announced on Oct. 30. 

Student-athletes and program staff are living in a hotel, taking their classes online. They’ll play their remaining home games at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium.

Meanwhile, New Mexico State University has plans to resume athletics after the Board of Regents unanimously voted to allow it.

TV station KVIA reports that NMSU made the call to resume despite warnings from state officials and dire COVID-19 statistics.

The state will only allow student-athletes to practice or complete if the schools are located in a county where the 14-day average daily case count is less than 8 in 100,000, and the test positivity rate is below 5 percent. The latest figures for Doña Ana County were 57.9 cases per 100,000, and 16.6 percent positivity rate.

NMSU implemented a “bubble” concept, similar to what the NBA did in order to complete its season. Student-athletes were required to move into single-occupancy dorms, where they receive food at their doorsteps. An app tracks their location, and classes are 100 percent online.

"We're placing an incredible burden on our student-athletes,” NMSU AD Mario Moccia told KVIA. “We're very acutely aware of the mental health aspect that goes along with this."

The state has said that it will make no exceptions to its order regarding return to play, however, and threatened that consequences could be forthcoming. A spokesperson for the governor’s office wrote, “I would expect the leaders of an institution of higher education to know that legal directives can't just be ignored."

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