UNM inspires more head scratching

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By Hal Rhodes

You can get a fairly good sense of how people in other parts of the country perceive New Mexico by the questions they ask about the state of affairs in this enchanted land.

In the latter 1990s, for instance, when Gary Johnson was governor, easily the question most often put to me when talking with folks beyond New Mexico’s borders was, “Is your governor really serious about legalizing marijuana?”

Some were horrified by the thought, others were downright titillated, but they all wanted to talk about it.

When Johnson’s successor took office, marijuana disappeared like a puff of smoke, and Bill Richardson’s political aspirations quickly filled the void.

“Is he going to run for president?” they would routinely ask in phone conversations and e-mail exchanges.

And when he did run for president and stumbled, friends and family, from me East coast to West and points in between, wanted to know, “What about that campaign of his? Why didn’t things come together for him?”

The extent to which those earlier preoccupations are now ancient history was driven home last week when an acquaintance on the East Coast and my brother in the Midwest posed queries about “that athletic department at your university, there,” as my brother put it.

His interest centered primarily on the much-publicized allegations that the University of New Mexico football coach had punched and tried to strangle one of his assistants.   

I knew this brouhaha had become an item on national cable and radio sport news programs, but what I hadn’t realized until my brother raised the subject is that it has also become a conversation piece in offices far and wide.

Neither did I realize that the ponytail pulling, pushing and punching antics of a UNM women’s soccer team member had invaded the national chatter until I phoned an East Coast friend for some information, only to have her interrupt and ask what university officials are “doing about that kind of behavior by its athletes.”  

Clearly, these are news stories of considerable interest elsewhere.

And more’s the pity because, while both the football coach and the soccer slugger were put on some kind of suspension, a great many New Mexicans have serious doubts about the way top officials at UNM have handled the two affairs, especially the case of head football coach Mike Locksley.

From the outset, top athletics department functionaries appear to have set about violating the university’s own, quite unambiguous, guidelines for investigating matters of this sort.   

These guidelines stipulate that such investigations should be conducted by persons outside the department involved. So why did the vice president of athletic affairs ignore those strictures by undertaking his own in-house “probe” into the charges against Locksley?

Did the university president know what was going on here? He certainly should have, unless he’s totally detached and/or indifferent to his obligations to UNM.

Worse, witnesses to the altercation first offered one version – and a not so favorable version to Locksley, at that – about what had happened, only to be instructed to zip their lips if questioned further about the incident.

Then, last week, amid calls for an independent investigation into the matter, the president of the UNM Board of Regents, former state House Speaker Raymond Sanchez, turned a big thumbs-down to the proposal.

The late New York Times columnist William Safire was a master of the language of American politics, and in his lively volume, Safire’s Political Dictionary, he defines the term “cover-up” as “any plan to avoid detection of wrongdoing; or, an act to conceal a mistake.”

Which leaves us to wonder about what’s up at UNM.     

© 2009 New Mexico News Services