Opinion: If New Mexico’s governor stops college football in that state because of COVID-19, could others follow?

When the topic of a significant postponement or cancellation of the season comes up in college football circles, the big question everyone asks is who makes the first move.

For perfectly understandable reasons, nobody in the business of big-time football wants to go out on that limb by themselves. So it was notable when word emerged late Tuesday evening via the Albuquerque Journal that New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter to the leadership at both University of New Mexico and New Mexico State calling for a postponement of football season.

In the letter, Lujan Grisham cited rising COVID-19 cases among people between age 20 and 39 and said it was “critical that you postpone collegiate athletics in this moment of escalating danger.”.

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At both schools, the letter is being viewed more as a request than an edict and no decisions are going to be made immediately. Lujan Grisham has exercised her authority to postpone high school sports this fall until 2021, but the extent to which she could do the same to force New Mexico and New Mexico State not to play is more complicated due to the layers of governance at each institution.

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According to a person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions, both schools would prefer to follow the consensus that will emanate from whatever decisions are made at the Power Five level.

Though New Mexico is in the Mountain West and New Mexico State is an independent, it seems likely that the rest of the Bowl Subdivision will fall in line after the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Pac 12 figure out when they can start the season — a decision that is looming either by the end of the month or very early in August.

But the other scenario that could play out would be for other states to line up and start taking measures to either postpone college football or pressure universities to do so. In other words, the significance of Lujan Grisham’s request could hinge on whether New Mexico is alone or other governors start echoing calls for the college football season to move to 2021.

On its own, the state of New Mexico isn’t significant enough within the college athletics landscape to start the dominoes falling. We’ve already seen FCS conferences like the Ivy League and Patriot League cancel fall sports and other leagues without football postpone or cancel their fall sports schedule, but the financial incentives of the Power Five leagues are very different.

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If New Mexico and New Mexico State didn’t play, the rest of college football would move on without them. But at some point, there could very well be a critical mass of states that decide it is simply not appropriate to play college football in the fall.

Whether Lujan Grisham can or will actually force the schools to postpone football season is unclear. But it’s notable that she is the first significant political voice to enter a conversation where nobody has wanted to speak up first.

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