New Mexico regents move forward with cutting sports

GLEN ROSALES and SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN (Associated Press)
The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) -- The Board of Regents at New Mexico's flagship university voted Thursday to eliminate four sports teams and make other changes to its troubled athletic department to address persistent budget problems and failures to meet federal gender equity requirements under Title IX.

University President Garnett S. Stokes and athletic director Eddie Nunez presented recommendations to cut men's soccer, along with the men's and women's skiing and beach volleyball programs, during a special meeting.

The unanimous vote came after the board heard hours of testimony from coaches, players, alumni and community members about the importance of the programs. Some in the crowd responded with boos and heckles.

''This is a very difficult day,'' Stokes told reporters after the meeting. ''We would not be here if we did not believe this was absolutely essential for us to do.''

She and the regents acknowledged that not addressing the budget problems within the athletic department or finding ways to come into compliance with Title IX requirements would end up being more costly for the university and could potentially lead to more federal intervention.

Many options were reviewed, but Stokes said every potential opportunity for maintaining the teams would have meant finding significantly more recurring funding or exponentially increasing student fees.

''You're talking about huge amounts of money,'' she said.

Men's soccer has perhaps the highest profile nationally of Lobos men's sports, having twice reached the Final Four and the championship game once.

Head coach Jeremy Fishbein, who has been quite vocal in support of the athletic department and his program, warned regents the university could become a laughingstock if his team and the other programs were eliminated. He touted the academic success of student-athletes, their contributions to the community and the effects they will have on the world as young leaders.

''How do you put a price on that?'' Fishbein asked.

With the vote, the programs will be discontinued as of July 1, 2019. University officials say they will honor the scholarships of the affected student athletes through their graduation.

The athletic department overestimated revenues and overspent its budget nine of the past 11 years, resulting in a deficit of nearly $5 million. While it was tasked with reducing its annual spending by nearly $2 million by 2020, officials are still predicting a recurring deficit of $2.3 million in 2019.

Some in the audience criticized the athletic department for its history of fiscal mismanagement and questionable spending by the previous administration, saying it was unfair to cut the teams.

They called for more scrutiny to be placed on the budgets of more costly programs like football and basketball.

In April, regents approved a plan calling for reducing the number of sports to help close the spending gap and cut future expenses. With 22 sports, New Mexico supports the most programs in the Mountain West Conference. The national average is 16 to 18.

Stokes and Nunez said other changes will be needed to balance the books, such as moving some functions from the athletic department to the main campus and that the university has to look at boosting its own support of athletics.

An analysis of the university's sports programs found that over the past decade, expenses have continued to increase, revenues have decreased and the operating budgets for each sports program have been incrementally reduced.

Cutting soccer and the other teams along with the roster modifications will save an estimated $1.148 million annually, according to the report.

As for the Title IX requirements, a report issued in May by an independent firm showed there were 317 men participating in sports compared with 247 women, resulting in inequity when considering the percentage of men and women who make up the university's overall enrollment of full-time undergraduates.

The disparity is greater when viewed in terms of athletic scholarships, with men receiving a larger percentage of financial aid.

Stokes, who took over earlier this year, said she will work on educating an angry populous about how the university ended up in this situation and will try to rebuild the community's trust.

Fishbein, who has coached the soccer team for close to two decades, vowed to fight for his program.

''It's really disappointing on a lot of levels. I love this place. I love our guys. Clearly you can see how important soccer is to so many people,'' he said. ''. It's unfortunate but I believe this is not the end of things.''

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