ALBUQUERQUE — Hurry up and wait.
In response to the state’s continued lockdown on mass gatherings, the New Mexico Activities Association’s board of directors voted to push back the start of the 2020-21 high school sports season to Feb. 1. Against the backdrop of heavy COVID-19 caseloads, the move raises the possibility that high school sports could be in danger of not taking place in any form this school year.
The NMAA decision came during Wednesday’s two-hour board meeting in which Executive Director Sally Marquez presented two options, neither of which was met with welcome arms.
The amended athletics calendar originally adopted this fall was left on the table for the board’s consideration. It called for basketball and swimming practices to begin Jan. 4, holding events as early as Jan. 9. Keeping that plan, Marquez said, meant running the risk of further delays as the state continues to grapple with the rapid expansion of the pandemic.
The second proposal, which was unanimously approved Wednesday, delays the earliest possible starting date by four weeks and condenses what would have been a 10-week regular season for some sports into just six or seven weeks.
The new schedule allows the traditional fall sports of football, cross-country, volleyball and soccer to go first. They would begin preseason workouts between Feb. 1 and March 1 with live events just a few days later. That’s followed by winter sports (basketball, swimming and wresting) launching in late March. The April 5 start date for the traditional spring sports remained unchanged.
The new calendar has a handful of sports not ending their championship events until late June, more than a month after the NMAA usually wraps up its annual calendar.
Football’s start date will be Feb. 1, with championship games played April 3. It delays basketball’s start 11 weeks to March 22 — a full week after the 2021 state tournament was supposed to end — with its new state tournament scheduled for May 3-8.
Marquez acknowledged it’s a desperation move, noting any further delays could easily result in some sports not being played at all.
“This would be the last-ditch effort,” she said.
She stressed the NMAA is at the mercy of decisions made by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials, adding the association cannot set a true start date for any activity until given the go-ahead by the Governor’s Office. As of Wednesday’s board meeting, the governor had yet to approve the NMAA’s latest proposal, essentially meaning the Feb. 1 start is little more than a proposal.
“Looking at the current state of COVID at this point, I’m trying to be proactive because I do not want to have happen [what happened] with the fall sports, where they started their season and then got the rug pulled from under them,” Marquez said.
She added: “The calendar still does allow all sports to play in the 2020-21 school year. That is still the goal. Not ready to throw in the towel for that, either.”
Had the board rejected Wednesday’s amended calendar, Marquez said the NMAA faced the very real possibility that some sports would lose their chance to have any kind of season. She acknowledged there have been closed-door discussions about a potential deadline to cancel fall and winter sports but didn’t disclose what that might be.
“For example, if basketball started Jan. 4 and we don’t get the go until March, then those sports wouldn’t participate if we keep the same calendar,” she said.
Board President T.J. Parks of Hobbs said he has become aware that a number of families are trying to decide whether to move out of state in order to give their kids a chance to play this school year.
The state’s health order has driven New Mexico’s flagship universities to send their teams outside state lines to keep their seasons alive. The University of New Mexico men’s and women’s basketball teams are in Texas, and its football team is in Nevada. New Mexico State’s basketball teams are in Arizona.
Parks, the superintendent of Hobbs Municipal Schools, expressed frustration at driving east into Texas, just 10 minutes from his office, and watching high school and college sports taking place as scheduled. He said the time is coming for state leaders to make a call, one way or another, about the long-term forecast of high school sports — particularly if the state’s new red-to-green orders allow some counties to open faster than others based on COVID-19 numbers.
He questioned whether the state’s public health order would allow some teams to compete in NMAA championship events while others would be banned.
“We need some strong comments from the Governor’s Office to tell us what’s going to happen in those events because I think it’s going to happen,” Parks said.
Because the NMAA canceled the entire spring sports schedule at the end of the 2019-20 season, Marquez has made it a priority to get those sports — baseball, softball, golf, tennis, and track and field — back in action in 2021. It’s why, on paper, they have a longer regular season under the new calendar than those of football, basketball and soccer.
The board also approved a measure that would allow seniors who graduate at the end of the fall semester to participate in sports of their choosing through the end of the 2020-21 season. Gallup-McKinley County Schools Superintendent Mike Hyatt conservatively estimated at least 750 students across the state would be able to take advantage of this ruling, including 28 in his district.
Similarly, the board amended its eligibility requirements for freshmen, allowing them to maintain their eligibility in the spring semester if they finish the fall term with a 2.0 grade-point average and no more than one failing grade. A previous ruling would have made freshmen ineligible with any failing grade, regardless of their overall GPA.