Hundreds of struggling student-athletes around New Mexico potentially got a major reprieve last Thursday night.

The board of directors of the New Mexico Activities Association voted on Oct. 1 that athletes can compete with a clean academic slate in fall golf, cross country and volleyball. This could pave the way for them to compete in those three sports this fall regardless of their current academic standing – and regardless of their grades situation throughout the duration of the first semester.

Previously, athletes were going to be checked for grades at the six-week grading period (like Albuquerque Public Schools) or the nine-week grading period, which is what a majority of the state’s schools utilize.

And the Journal has been told by multiple sources inside APS that there are scores of athletes who would not have been eligible to compete this fall without a rules revision like this. APS just completed its first six-week grading period. This is a trend at many schools, which have a large number of athletes who have not been able to keep up their grades in the pandemic-driven, online learning model.

The Journal has spoken to multiple coaches and ADs around the state who report that the number of academically ineligible athletes has risen dramatically when compared to the same period a year ago.

There is a caveat that comes with the NMAA board vote. Each individual school, or district, can determine whether it wants to follow the NMAA board’s lead, which is not mandatory, or institute its own tougher regulations, holding athletes to a higher standard. It was not immediately known what APS will do.

“I’d like to find a way to get the kids to play,” APS Superintendent and NMAA board member Scott Elder said. “I’d like to give them the opportunity.”

The NMAA board vote on this was not unanimous. A couple of NMAA board members expressed worry about going in this direction, fearing that some kids who already are struggling won’t have the impetus to improve their grades since they won’t face an athletic penalty if they don’t.

“I’m all for holding athletes accountable,” said Aztec Municipal Schools Superintendent Kirk Carpenter, one of three board members who voted against this proposal and who is a former coach. “But nobody asked for what we’re faced with. In some respects, giving them too big of a break is perhaps not the best option.”

NMAA executive director Sally Marquez told the board that there are a “very large amount” of student-athletes in New Mexico who have at least one “F” grade. Those athletes, under the previous NMAA rule, would not have been able to compete at the start of the season and would be forced to try to regain their eligibility at the end of the second grading period.

“There needs to be a change, some way, somehow,” Marquez said as she addressed the board.

As for the second semester, normal guidelines will apply in terms of academic eligibility, and current student-athletes who are laboring with grades need to get them up if they want to compete in the two primary sports at the start of the 2021 calendar year, those being basketball and swimming.

But already, multiple coaches acknowledge that there are going to be athletes in 2021 who have an “F” grade who cannot compete, while athletes with multiple “F” grades this fall may not face the same issue.

“We need to hold (athletes) accountable,” said Las Cruces Public Schools district AD Ernie Viramontes.

There is, of course, another crucial piece to this puzzle, and it resides in Santa Fe.

Official, in-season workouts are scheduled to begin Monday for golf, cross country and volleyball. But as Marquez noted, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has yet to sign off on competition in any of those three sports.

“We’re still waiting for word from the governor’s office,” Marquez said. That leaves open the possibility that volleyball and cross country could get pushed to 2021, as well.

The first cross country meets and volleyball matches can be staged as early as Oct. 10. APS is scheduled to begin volleyball on Oct. 13, cross country on Oct. 16.

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