When the University of New Mexico’s athletic program upchucks on itself the way it has in the past several weeks, you’re half-inclined to believe the star-crossed Lobos either play on a haunted burial ground or are just paying a karmic debt for the irredeemable sins of their ancestors.
Actually, some of the Lobos are just repeating the sins of their ancestors.
Allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault? UNM athletes have been there before. A party, heavily attended by Lobo jockos, gone way wrong? Present and accounted for. Allegations of graft and corruption? Yes, of course, but you can’t blame the kids for that one. It’s administrators who go to court for that.
The question isn’t why UNM athletics seems unable to police itself through the decades, but why any Lobo fan seems surprised. Such conduct comes with the overexposed and under-regulated territory of (semi) big-time college sports, and if you’re embarrassed and upset by the noxious emissions rising from the corner of University Boulevard and Avenida Cesar Chavez in Albuquerque, remember: As the Talking Heads once told us, it’s the same as it ever was.
Which brings me to my actual point.
The numbers say fewer and fewer people care about sports here — wins, losses, ties, arrests, convictions, whatever — anymore. And that, more than ugly headlines scrawled like graffiti across the athletic department’s reputation, has to be the most petrifying reality at Lobos HQ.
Housed in a charmless 39,000-seat concrete pen, UNM football, rarely a winner, doesn’t draw enough fans to fill the school’s basketball palace, The Pit, which holds roughly 15,000 people. In 2019, the football team’s last few crowds would have left room to spare at Santa Fe High’s Ivan Head Stadium.
UNM men’s basketball, the bell cow of the athletic program, is but a barely visible shadow of its old power. After a win on Jan. 11, before coach Paul Weir’s program began to self-destruct, New Mexico was 15-3. And yet, only a mediocre crowd of 11,014 came to watch the Lobos beat Air Force that night.
There was a day, when fans cared deeply, when a 15-3 New Mexico team would pack The Pit, regardless of the opponent.
The decay of interest in college athletics is hollowing out departments throughout the country, and not just in remote places like New Mexico. A couple weeks ago, the Mercury News, a Bay Area newspaper, reported UCLA’s sports programs were staring down the barrel of a $19 million debt in the 2019 fiscal year.
That’s UCLA, the University of California, Los Angeles, centered in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, with alumni galore, in a premier conference.
Oddly, the problems there are similar to New Mexico’s: Big buyouts to failed coaches; fewer people spending crazy money to attend games they could more easily watch on TV, their computers or their phones.
But if you think UCLA an anomaly, look north from L.A. to Berkeley, where the University of California has a $24 million deficit, according to USA Today.
The levers of college sports are pulled by TV networks now; the games are programming fodder in which the real proceeds fuel a suit-wearing jock-ocracy and don’t reach the sweaty workers on the floor or field who do the actual labor. This transformation, one felt all over the country — from Alabama to New Mexico State — turned off the casual fan years ago. But now, it is reaching into the routines of hardcore nuts who used to plan schedules around a Lobo game against, say, San Diego State.
Add that to university programs limiting media access to players, a supremely stupid move that increases the distance between fan and program, and it’s not hard to see why the Lobos are praying, praying, that their men’s basketball home finale will draw 7,500 people to a space created to house a cauldron of 15,000.
My guess is that you probably don’t even know the names of the former or suspended Lobos who have created the distasteful headlines in recent weeks. And I’ll bet you can’t name their leading scorer in men’s basketball, let alone the quarterback (maybe any player) on the football team.
Put it together, and what you’ve got is an athletic program that produces neither joy nor outrage. What you get is a yawn.
Welcome to college sports, 2020.