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UNM leaders recommend cutting four sports

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UNM volleyball coach Jeff Nelson talks with team members after a meeting with the UNM athletic director Eddie Nunez, where they found out that beach volleyball could be cut. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Facing both financial problems and Title IX compliance issues, the University of New Mexico administration is advancing a plan to eliminate four sports effective next summer — men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing, and women’s beach volleyball — and significantly tweak rosters for men’s cross country and track and women’s swimming and diving.

And those measures will not entirely cure the athletic department’s budget challenges; filling the shortfall could still require more support from main campus, students and/or the state.

UNM President Garnett Stokes will present the recommendation to the UNM Board of Regents at a special meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday. The board will make the final decision, though athletic director Eddie Nuñez on Wednesday notified the teams that would be affected if approved.

In a report outlining the plan, UNM called the measures “truly the last, best options to ensure the long-term success of UNM Athletics.”

Athletics has busted its budget repeatedly, and a consultant’s Title IX review of the department earlier this year noted a significant disparity in participation opportunities for male and female athletes.

In a meeting with Journal reporters and editors Wednesday afternoon, Stokes and Nuñez said they arrived at what they called described as a difficult recommendation by evaluating each program on a number of criteria; however, they said the decision-making process prioritized three factors: finances, Title IX implications and the Mountain West Conference affiliation.

Of UNM’s 22 sports, only the four facing elimination do not compete within the Mountain West.

Beach volleyball player Carly Beddingfield told reporters Wednesday she and teammates were caught off-guard by the news because they think their sport is inexpensive. They plan to be at Thursday’s meeting to speak to the regents. She said Nuñez explained the decision as partly financial.

Indoor volleyball coach Jeff Nelson — who also oversees the beach program — said he believes beach volleyball only costs UNM about $18,000 a year to operate, in part because the coaching staff does not receive any extra compensation for running it.

Nelson said he thinks losing beach volleyball would hurt recruiting for the indoor volleyball team, which UNM is keeping.

Cutting men’s soccer, the skiing programs and beach volleyball would affect 63 athletes, according to UNM.

Those programs would be phased out July 1, 2019, under the proposal, and UNM says it would honor the scholarships of any affected athlete who chose to stay until graduation.

The proposal would also mean “roster management” for nearly every other sport, though some would change more significantly.

UNM would scuttle the diving portion of its women’s swimming and diving program, in part because UNM lacks a facility with diving platforms. But the program would open more spots for swimmers.

Many other women’s teams would also gain slots.

Men’s cross country would lose six participant spots, men’s indoor track would lose 11 and men’s outdoor track would lose 12. That would happen immediately.

Notably, the plan only achieves $1.15 million in savings out of the $1.9 necessary to meet a budget plan already approved by regents.

UNM expects to somehow bridge the difference through other means, including potentially raising revenue. The report recommends a number of possible channels, such as moving more athletic department functions to main campus through a “shared services” model that could reduce spending in areas like academic support and communications. It also says UNM “must look” at boosting its own financial support of athletics, saying it is lower than most of its peers, and also recommends transferring annual debt payments for the Pit remodel from athletics to the main campus. The average annual payment is about $1.76 million.

UNM has had recurring financial problems in athletics.

The department has consistently finished over budget, a problem often linked to failures meeting lofty ticket sales projections for football and basketball.

The department had accumulated a $4.7 million deficit to the university’s reserves by the end of fiscal year 2017, having missed budget eight times in a 10-year span.

It struggled again in fiscal year 2018, which ended June 30. The regents in November approved giving the department a $1.3 million boost from reserves — but did not add the sum to the department’s running tab. Athletics still needed about $800,000 more in university assistance to finish the year.

The constant issues prompted New Mexico Higher Education Secretary Barbara Damron to intervene last October. She placed UNM under an enhanced fiscal oversight program, demanding that UNM conceive a plan to resolve the deficit and put the department on a financially stable path. Having not seen such a plan by March, she warned that she could stanch the flow of state money into the university.

UNM’s regents in April approved a multi-faceted plan that included a “reduction in sports” effective in fiscal year 2020 that would reduce costs by $1.9 million. The board tasked Nuñez with making recommendations about how to reach the $1.9 million in savings. Nuñez spent the last few months evaluating his department — which boasts more sports than any other team in the Mountain West Conference except the federally funded Air Force Academy — and gave his recommendation to Stokes for her review.

The regent-approved budget plan for athletics also has various forms of university assistance. UNM will this year give the department $885,435 from “land sale proceeds,” another $641,000 in unspecified institutional support and $750,000 in tuition waivers for student-athletes.

Athletics’ revenue also includes about $3.7 million in student fees. The legislature also appropriates about $2.6 million for UNM athletics — $500,000 less than it allocates for New Mexico State University sports.

But the department’s problems extend beyond finances.

In May, UNM released a Title IX assessment report indicating the athletic department was not compliant with federal gender equity laws.

Essentially, the university was providing opportunities within the athletics department for male student athletes at a rate disproportionate to female student athletes that was not close to being aligned with the ratios of UNM’s general student enrollment numbers.

At UNM, where the female enrollment for the 2016-17 school year was at 55.4 percent, the female participation in athletics was at 43.8 percent.

Title IX, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act, requires opportunity to be equal for females and males, with a few other criteria that could allow a school to not carry the proper proportionality. The assessment determined that UNM didn’t meet those other requirements as its support of beach volleyball, and a general lack of resources being devoted to providing an adequate playing facility for the team, would no longer allow UNM to remain Title IX compliant by showing it was making steps toward adding women’s sports.

Asked how UNM athletics allowed itself to be so non-compliant with Title IX guidelines and who was responsible for allowing it to get to this point, Nuñez said it is the ultimate responsibility of the athletic director to make sure the department is compliant, though he stopped short of saying anyone in the past should have better prepared UNM for this.

He said one employee in charge of Title IX compliance in recent years no longer works at UNM and another who in the past has overseen it who still works at UNM hasn’t been directly overseeing it recently.

Who is responsible for it in the future?

“Ultimately, I am,” Nuñez said, before adding there will be department reorganization soon in which he could assign that role to another administrator.

According to her job description posted on UNM’s web site, deputy athletic director Janice Ruggiero is in charge of overseeing Title IX. Nuñez spoke highly of her advocacy of Title IX within the department and said any Title IX issues the department is facing is not because of something she failed to do. Asked specifically if she had made past recommendations that were ignored, Nuñez said he could not speak to what decisions were made in the past.

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