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.
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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