The state of New Mexico hasn’t always had a lot to cheer for when it comes to sports. On a professional level, both New Mexico United and the Albuquerque Isotopes garner a certain amount of attention from regional or national media. Both of those teams have given supporters and people of the state reasons to be proud of them.
At the collegiate level, both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University have had their moments or years of success. But outside of the Southwest, they don’t see much media attention unless they overperform athletically. Even then, the lights have been dimmed on both programs in recent years. A lack of on-field success will do that. It’s in those times that the light shines brightest when the negative stories happen.
As someone who grew up outside of New Mexico, I wasn’t aware of the history between these two schools. I grew up watching the rivalries of Georgia vs Georgia Tech (Clean, Old-fashioned Hate), Auburn vs Alabama (The Iron Bowl), and Duke vs North Carolina (Tobacco Road). Of those, it might surprise you to learn that the Tobacco Road series started 26 years after the Rio Grande Rivalry. All three of these get vastly greater recognition of the history behind them.
While I have no emotional attachment to the Rio Grande Rivalry, for the folks who grew up here or attended either of the schools it’s a matter of pride.
Unlike Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, which meets once every year in basketball, the Rio Grande Rivalry stands out in basketball for being one of the few non-conference series to play both a home and away game every year. As has been the tradition since 1894, the two programs have met like clockwork, except for World War 2 and the COVID year, until 2022.
During the football version of the Rio Grande Rivalry, a brawl broke out between students of both schools. When the rivalry shifted to the hardwood, students from UNM lured an Aggie player, Mike Peake, to an altercation off-site allegedly in a revenge plot for the October brawl. That altercation led to the death of Brandon Travis and the injury of the player.
It was because of this that the schools canceled the games for the 22-23 season.
In the months since the shooting, the schools have not developed a plan to resume the series, leaving it in doubt for the 23-24 season. It’s gotten to the point where the New Mexico Higher Education Department and even State Senator Moe Maestas are getting involved.
“It would be incredibly dismaying for the city and for the state. It’s what we do,” Maestas said on TEAM Talk on Thursday. “Eddie (Nunez) is a strong leader and he briefed me yesterday on what needs to happen. He wants to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, students, and fans.”
The fact that neither school has made headway on securing the facilities for everyone involved is concerning as a sports fan. Even more so if you’re someone who has a vested interest in this rivalry. Right now, the two schools are staring at an impasse because of the actions of a few individuals.
It has been suggested that the series be changed from a home-and-home for each team to a single meeting.
“It has to be safe. The schedules will be out in a few weeks so there needs to be a sense of urgency,” continued Maestas. “If it goes to one game a year, it will stay like that forever. If they don’t play this year, they may end up playing every two or three years. The tradition needs to stay where everyone gets one home game a year.”
Maestas isn’t wrong. If the schools fail to reach an agreement on a schedule and enhancing security, it could be the end of the Rio Grande Rivalry as we know it.
What has to happen though?
That’s where people are going to disagree. Do both schools need to agree to improve security measures at rivalry events? Absolutely, they do. There are some simple solutions that can be used as a jumping-off point. One, do what soccer clubs do, separate home and away fans if they aren’t already doing so. Allocate a specific block of seats for the away team. Two, increase the police presence. Sure, there were police on the scene fairly quickly at the October incident, but it escalate far faster than a response could be implemented. Three, put additional security measures in place at the gates and in the parking lots to ensure the safety of fans. Four, require traveling players to adhere to a curfew and keep them from being where they shouldn’t be.
Now, these are all event-specific changes and things for the teams themselves to work on. Some of which will come at an increased cost to the schools. But, it needs to be done.
I recognize that the shooting incident occurred outside of athletic facilities, but was still on campus. UNM doesn’t have a stellar record when it comes to security and it remains to be seen what suggestions have been put forward by the University to increase the presence and capabilities of their security to prevent and handle situations like this.
I’m by no means an expert on how to handle this. I don’t know that anyone is. But, the people in charge have a responsibility to do everything in their power to enhance the safety of everyone and ensure that this series continues. Rivalries are important. Rivalries have the ability to help build the programs, build the communities, and build the state. The home-and-home series is unique to this state and these schools and is a tradition that needs to continue.