NMAA launches mental health initiative in midst of pandemic

New Mexico Activities Association Executive Director Sally Marquez

The New Mexico Activities Association board of directors has given NMAA Executive Director Sally Marquez the authority to discipline coaches, players and schools who violate the association's and the New Mexico Department of Health's COVID-19 protocols.

The board held a special meeting Monday morning (April 19) to discuss the issue, unanimously approving a motion that grants Marquez the power to get tough when the situation calls for it.

Starting immediately, she can sanction violators with suspensions, forfeitures, fines or postseason bans.

"At this point, as you saw last week where wrestling was taken away from us for less than 24 hours, we are at a brink right now of being shut down for athletics," Marquez told the board. "We need to make sure that we are following all the governor's orders, all the COVID-safe practices that they have been handed down from the governor's office. The Public Education Department and the NMAA need to make sure that they are being followed."

The state temporarily suspended the wrestling season April 15, only to reinstate it just hours later after numerous discussions with the NMAA.

Without giving examples of specific rules violations, Marquez said there have been multiple instances since prep sports returned in February that have raised concerns. That includes reports of players attending practices, games or public events knowing they were experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms.

Positive cases have been on the rise in recent weeks, with at least two schools temporarily returning to remote learning after separate and unrelated incidents.

"We have been warning - I have been warning - since mid-February," Marquez said. "It's getting to a point where the behavior has not stopped in many, many situations, and we're going to have to do a heavy hand if we're going to get to the finish line for spring sports. Right now, I'm very worried that if what we're doing continues that we will not have a chance to finish this season."

The leveling of financial penalties aspect of Marquez's power applies only to schools. She does, however, have the ability to prohibit fans if she determines they are not compliant with the rules, as well as ban players or coaches for running afoul of pandemic policies.

She said the NMAA originally put the onus on the coaches and athletic directors to enforce mask mandates and conduct routine health checks, but more recently, has asked game officials to keep an eye on things.

Still, the reports of violations keep rolling in. Several schools have lost games and practice time due to COVID-19-related issues. In the Santa Fe area, it cost the football teams from St. Michael's and Santa Fe High a combined four of the nine games they were allowed to play.

"I was hoping that this could be a collaborative effort, but I'll do whatever we can to make sure that we save sports for these kids," Marquez said.

"I know that so many of these things are rooted in a political nature, but I'm going to tell you that I'll wear a mask for the next year if I can get spring sports accomplished - and graduations," said board member Patrick Dempsey, the superintendent of the Gadsden Independent School District. "We have got to, in my opinion, step back from maybe our political views or whatever they may be and take care of kids. It makes me sick to think about all the work that's happened at this point and then to have spring sports canceled."

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent and NMAA board member Scott Elder said it's easy to find examples of COVID-19 violators on social media. With sports and graduations at risk with a prolonged shutdown, he said he's willing to let the NMAA get tough with its next step.

"If we have to shut down all spectators, if we have to suspend some teams, so be it," he said. "Graduation's got to happen and I really want spring sports for those kids."

The board also took action on two other matters, voting to deny eligibility of student-athletes at Wingate High School in participating in athletics at the public school in their home attendance zone. The request for denial actually came from the Navajo Nation, which asked the board to deny their students from participating in the same fashion that was previously granted to student-athletes who attend Santa Fe Indian School.

The board also voted on a measure that limits out-of-season coaching until Memorial Day weekend. Rather than taking the NMAA's suggestion of prohibiting coaching until then, it amended the proposal that allows small group workouts in 4-to-1 pods.

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