Decision to cut New Mexico men's soccer spurs anger

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The men's soccer team at the University of New Mexico has had a dozen NCAA tournament appearances, and hopefuls from around the world have competed to play for the program.

But regents at New Mexico's flagship university voted Thursday to cut the program, which has among the highest profiles nationally of Lobos men's sports.

The decision was met immediately by boos and heckles from some of those who packed the regents' meeting. In the hours since, regents, lawmakers and other elected leaders have been flooded with phone messages and emails. Countless social media posts expressed everything from anger to disbelief and calls for action.

Head coach Jeremy Fishbein is among those digging in his heels.

"Our heads are down and we are focused,'' he wrote in an email Friday. "New Mexico Lobo soccer is a vital part of our community and we will not be CUT! I believe in New Mexico and what is right...OUR PROGRAM IS WHAT IS RIGHT!"

The team has twice reached the final four. There also have been a championship game appearance and conference titles over the years. Outside the successes on the field, Fishbein told regents of his players' wins in the classroom, their community service and the inspiration they have provided to children from around New Mexico.

He said Friday that he was most concerned with his players.

The team won't be dissolved until July 2019, and the university has promised to honor the scholarships of the affected student-athletes through their graduation. But Fishbein said large conference schools already are recruiting his players.

"Unless the wrong is righted immediately, our best and brightest may be transferring,'' he said, mentioning offers from programs in the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

In presenting to regents the recommendations to cut soccer -- along with men's and women's skiing and beach volleyball -- top university officials said it would be "the right thing to do'' if the athletic department has any hope of turning around its finances and meeting federal gender equality requirements under Title IX.

University President Garnett S. Stokes and athletic director Eddie Nunez pointed to an analysis of the university's sports programs that found expenses have continued to increase, revenues have decreased and the operating budgets for each sports program have been incrementally reduced over the past decade.

There's some guaranteed revenue from conference distributions, multimedia rights deals and an apparel agreement with Nike, but the analysis acknowledged that fluctuations in all other areas have a significant impact on the department's bottom line.

It also mentions shortfalls in budgeted ticket sales and fundraising efforts over the past two years.

The report was released late Wednesday. Some critics have voiced concerns that the public was not able to review the documents in time for the regents' meeting. They're suggesting the university may have violated open government standards.

At least one complaint has been lodged with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office, but it's unlikely any of the wrangling could reverse the university's course.

Greg Williams, an Albuquerque attorney whose son was recruited to play for the Lobos in the fall, shared his concerns in a letter to university leaders that the public was effectively shut out of the process.

Williams said in an interview that the decision affects many people and sends a message the university is not capable of properly operating its athletic department.

"It's very hard for people outside of New Mexico to understand how a university could not manage to keep a program that has been successful by every measure -- including on-field performance and academics -- and it really casts the university in a poor light around the country,'' Williams said.

United Soccer Coaches, a Missouri-based organization that represents coaches at all levels, said in a statement Friday that spending in college athletics has gotten to the point of being a detriment to the opportunities of student-athletes in sports other than football and basketball.

"The value that these student-athletes bring to their school and their communities needs to carry a greater weight instead of taking the easy route of cutting programs,'' the group said.

According to the analysis of New Mexico's programs, more than two dozen universities around the U.S. have eliminated varsity sports programs in the past five years to address financial, gender equity or other concerns.

The report states that cutting soccer and the other teams along with roster modifications for certain sports will save around $1 million annually. That's not enough to fill the budget shortfall, and university officials say other changes will have to be made to curb costs and raise more money.