By Daniel Libit
Update (1/12/17): Following publication of this story, UNM Athletics Spokesman Frank Mercogliano took to Scout.com’s Lobo message board to push back against a solitary allegation addressed in the article: that the school did not honor members of the Lobo women’s cross country team after their 2015 National Championship. In a follow-up email exchange Mercogliano told NMFishbowl.com that UNM did not report any rules violations to the NCAA, based on student-athlete exit interviews, because: “There were no violations of NCAA rules to report.”
What’s it like to be a Lobo athlete?
- You might be fat-shamed by a coach who calls you a “Dorito-eater.”
- You might be unable to contact your academic counselor because that adviser is busy writing a term paper for another athlete.
- You might be struggling to personally pay substantial medical bills from injuries incurred on the field of play.
- You might be misidentified by a classroom professor who tells you, “All you black female athletes look alike.”
- You might not be permitted to pursue your preferred major because the coursework conflicts with your coach’s practice schedule.
- You might fear for your life during an 18-hour road trip because you play a secondary sport and the aging van you’re riding in seems barely able to remain safely on the road.
Each of these allegations were culled from the notes of exit interviews with University of New Mexico senior athletes during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. The “confidential” documents (copies of which you can see here and here) were obtained by NMFishbowl.com through a public records request. They were formulated by members of the Athletic Council, a committee within UNM’s Faculty Senate, and were intended to privately provide insight to the Athletics Department about the experiences of students in their stead. The participating athletes were granted anonymity in order to talk openly with council members about their experiences at UNM. In releasing the documents to NMFishbowl.com, the school also endeavored to redact parts of the notes that implicated specific targets of athlete criticism — although, in one notable case, it’s obvious who is being referred to: Bob Davie.
An important caveat: Because of the anonymizing nature of the notes, it is impossible in many cases to either corroborate or falsify the claims; in only a few specific instances did NMFishbowl.com attempt to do so. That said, the documents provide a rare and revealing window into what Lobo athletes actually think when they are encouraged to speak their minds. Less clear is exactly what UNM has done with this input.
“The confidential student-athlete exit interviews are conducted to better our athletic program and the student-athlete experience,” UNM Athletics spokesman Frank Mercogliano said in a statement. “If anything comes up in the interviews that needs to be reviewed or requires further clarification, it is researched and looked into by the appropriate supervisor, department or university official.”
The Athletic Council’s chair, Finnie Coleman, said that the Athletics Department has been “remarkably responsive to the things we have had to say,” but also acknowledged that he himself is not aware of how the department uses the information gleaned from the exit interviews. The council serves merely an advisory function, not an oversight one.
“They don’t come up and tell us how to teach; we don’t presume to tell them how to run the athletics program,” Coleman told NMFishbowl.com.
While the documents also include a number of commendatory notes — “women’s soccer doesn’t haze anymore!”; Athletics Director Paul Krebs regularly shows up in the stands of second-tier sports; and New Mexico’s balmy weather was widely praised— they delve deeply into the department’s shortcomings, as cited by exiting senior athletes from a cross-section of different programs. Cumulatively, the summarized responses strike at the very integrity of what Lobo administrators and college sports defenders insist the mission of their enterprise is all about: an affirmative educational experience.
Surveying the synopsis of athlete exit-interviews shows the recurrence of several thematic claims: Inequitable treatment of male and female athletes in the area of weight limits and body mass; discriminatory access to trainers, weight rooms and other facilities amongst UNM sports; problems with paying for sports related injuries; frosty relations with some head coaches; and instances of racial insensitivity on the field and in the classroom.
Coleman declined to address the aforementioned allegation about an unidentified communications and journalism professor making a racist comment to a black female athlete. Neither of the department’s three co-chairs, nor Mercogliano, responded to email questions seeking information on whether the allegation had been investigated or addressed.
(In one case, NMFishbowl.com has decided to black out the last name of a chemistry professor cited in the documents, which slipped through UNM’s redaction process. The professor was said to have been difficult in accommodating the rescheduling of an athlete’s exam.)
The single complaint echoed again and again was the absence of academic freedom available to athletes. The documents contain comment after comment concerning classes that could not be taken, majors that could not be pursued, and a feeling among some athletes that they had been misled during the recruiting process about what career paths might be open to them.
That kind of testimony directly challenges the institutional argument, proffered by the NCAA and its supporters, that collegiate athletes need not be remunerated because their real reward is the scholarship they receive. According to graduating Lobos, those scholarships are, at times, virtually unusable.
A sample of the academic issues voiced in the documents, many of which were broached multiple times, include the following:
- “When coaches are recruiting, they should be honest and tell students they will not be able to play a sport if they go into nursing, engineering or a health-related field.”
- “Was unable to take classes that are required for major.”
- “Had to make a hard decision to either play sports for a scholarship or to change major.”
- “The coach emphasis was not on academics [but] was on the sport. Was not able to take time for a class offered only at a certain time or studying when needed.”
- “[Academic] advisors encouraged student-athletes to take different courses.” Another athlete was advised to take “easy classes.”
- “[Academic] advisors were not well-informed about majors.”
- “One student-athlete had four different academic advisors and they all told her different things.”
- “Student-athletes were given a career night to show what jobs might be available, but they were mostly sales jobs.”
The impediments to academic achievement identified by UNM athletes included a few allegations — specifically in the areas of student-athlete advisement and 20-hour practice limits — that, if true, might actually constitute NCAA violations:
- “Student-athlete was not able to be seen by an [academic] advisor because the advisor was writing a paper for another student-athlete.”
- “20-hour limit good in theory, but in practice is much more.”
- “Not attending optional practices may lead to reduced playing time.”
- “Coaches know that other schools get away with more practice, so they feel forced to do it.”
(Mercogliano did not respond to a specific question as to whether UNM had alerted the NCAA to potential violations based on the feedback in exit interviews.)
One of the most unsettling sections of the interview summary centered around the treatment of UNM’s female athletes. The documents are replete with complaints that female athletes are routinely subjected to weight-based harassment that their male colleagues do not encounter. Lobo women said they endured constant carping from coaches and trainers about their caloric intake. Some claimed they were required to submit to weekly weigh-ins and, in some instances, were forced onto salad-only diets for days at a time. At the same time, there were also complaints about unhealthy eating options being forced upon athletes, at the behest of their coaches.
The hypocrisy of this dynamic, laid bare in the notes, was clearly difficult for the athletes to stomach:
- “Coach would disgrace women student-athletes, telling them they need to slim down, and if they did they would perform better.”
- “There were quite a few comments from various coaches and trainers for female athletes to watch their weight (even though the athlete feels good and is healthy).”
- “New trainer makes weight-based comment like calling someone a ‘Dorito-eater’.”
- “Women have weekly weigh-ins.”
- “Had to have salad six meals in a row.”
- “Had to eat where coach wanted to stop–KFC, pizza–no nutritional value.”
- “Men do not receive many comments about weight issues.”
- “Weight issues need to be addressed with coaches and trainers–they should leave weight issues to the doctors.”
- “Different dynamic for men and women when it comes to weight.”
- “Coach would not provide good meals or would deny food for a longer period of time after a game.”
Mercogliano declined to respond to specific questions on the subject of weight-related issues. For his part, Coleman told NMFishbowl.com that he was entirely unaware of this being an issue with UNM’s female athletes.
“That is the first I have heard of it,” Coleman said, “and I have looked over those materials.” Because of scheduling conflicts, Coleman said that not all Athletic Council members are necessarily in the room when each athlete is interviewed. Still, given the frequency with which allusions to fat-shaming appear in the documents, it is striking that the council’s chairman was not privy to this.
A significant segment of the student-athletes who participated in the exit-interview process competed in UNM’s secondary sports — the so-called “Olympic sports,” including cross-country, skiing, track and field, volleyball and soccer — and there was much discussion about their treatment and standing in the department.
While UNM brags loudly about the accomplishments achieved by its smaller sports, there’s a clear discrepancy in how those athletes feel they are treated. The Olympic-sport athletes regularly receive the message that only football and basketball really matter at UNM, even though neither of the Big Two has ever sniffed even a distant whiff of the national-championship success posted by some Olympic Lobo programs.
Nevertheless, Olympic athletes told exit interviewers that they are denied consistent access to trainers, weight rooms and other facilities. They complained about having to travel in outdated and unsafe vehicles; rued that their national championships are not even honored with an athletic-department dinner; and said they are forbidden to grab even a single carton of post-workout milk without specific weight-room approval. Athletes, according to the notes, say they have been warned to not even think about setting one step on the ever-so-precious football field.
Here are a few of the reflections from Olympic-sport athletes as relayed in the documents:
- “Student-athletes that are not football players are not allowed to enter the weight room.”
- “Trainers don’t show up to practices or games, (so) students have no water or treatment.”
- “Olympic sports have to practice outside all the time. They are not allowed to use the Indoor Practice Facility when there is bad weather.”
- “Should have safe vehicles. If a team has to travel to compete, they should feel safe while on the road. When something happens due to the vehicle not being safe to drive, and someone gets seriously hurt or dies, then it will be noticed or dealt with.”
- “Administration did not recognize us within the department, on campus or in the community for winning a National Championship.”
- “Not allowed to get milk after a run if weight room says no.”
- “Complaints about not being able to walk on football turf.”
- “Some sports have to pay for their own equipment, which is expensive.”
- “Would be nice to get recognition from our own athletic department.”
- “Hard to sit in a van for 18 hours worrying if you are going to get to your destination safely.”
- “Feel that the trainers are tired and don’t want to deal with a sport or ignore the student-athletes when they ask for help.”
The issue of athlete health was not necessarily confined to the second-status programs. The documents reference “numerous” complaints about health insurance not covering the costs of sports-related injuries. One athlete claimed to have received bills for three ACL surgeries, while another was said to have gone $1,000 in debt on account of an injury.
While UNM, in releasing the documents, attempted to shield the subjects of scorn, one clear target of repeated athlete ire was Bob Davie. Despite his on-field success in recent years, outgoing football players expressed deep consternation over their behind-the-scenes dealings with the head coach.
According to the notes, exiting seniors from the 2015-16 team said that Davie was “charismatic in front of cameras but has no personal relationship with players.” Players didn’t “feel comfortable using his open door policy,” and, in general, “felt awkward around head coach.” This echoed similar sentiments expressed by departing seniors the previous year.
It is important to note that the athletes interviewed in the six exit sessions reviewed by NMFishbowl.com were not disgruntled jocks who transferred out over insufficient playing time or who were run off due to inadequate skills. These were scholarship earners who stayed the course and completed their eligibility, and who shared their UNM experiences in interview groups composed of as many as 17 participants. Crucially, they are athletes that the university specifically sought feedback from and, presumably, were more likely to have had a positive experience at the school.
Coleman said the Athletic Council would seek to find ways, going forward, to interview athletes who have left UNM prior to their eligibility expiring, so as to get a more complete picture of the issues in the department.
Despite the myriad criticisms expressed in the athlete exit-interviews, Coleman vouched for the overall goodness of Lobo athletics.
“I think people often seek out the things going wrong,” he said, “but there is so much —and this is the perspective — there is a lot the school gets right, that often goes undiscussed.”
(lead photo courtesy of ABQ Free Press)