University of New Mexico athletics – along with former coach Bob Davie, the NCAA and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – have found themselves in the harsh glare of the national spotlight with the lawsuit by the family of Lobo football player Nahje Flowers, found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Nov. 5.
The family, represented by prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump (whose clients also include the families of George Floyd and Jacob Blake), alleges UNM ignored Flowers’ physical and mental health by forcing him to play when doctors had advised he take a break.
The case also raises issues that concussion damage caused by bodies colliding on a football field and racism were factors in the death of the 6-foot-3 defensive lineman, suffering from depression and a shoulder injury.
“Various white players for the Lobos during the 2019 season were given time off by coaches in order to get healthy,” the suit says. “Nahje was never permitted to take time off to get his mental state healthy. Coaches would override doctors’ orders and threaten Nahje to play in games doctors specifically told him to sit out.”
The lawyer for Davie, who was fired at the end of the 2019 season but is still receiving an $825,000 payout due under his contract, said any suggestion Davie “overruled medical advice given to Mr. Flowers is absolutely false.”
Meanwhile, Crump’s legal team said an independent specialist determined Flowers’ brain had signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), in contrast to a report by the UNM School of Medicine that found Flowers’ brain did not meet diagnostic criteria for CTE.
NCAA oversight of college athletics also is in play.
Crump says both UNM and the NCAA owe the family an apology “because they lied to (his parents) when they said they would look after the health and well-being and the development of Nahje.” The NCAA has long been accused of looking at players as chattel in the lucrative enterprise of college athletics.
The governor finds herself enmeshed in the case by virtue of her 2019 line-item veto of $357,000 approved for nutrition and mental health services for UNM athletes. The sponsor, Albuquerque Republican Sen. Mark Moores, a former Lobo lineman, suggested the veto stemmed from her irritation at UNM dropping men’s soccer over her objection, which the governor denied.
UNM football player Teton Saltes – among those successfully lobbying for a $450,000 appropriation for behavioral health for athletes at UNM and New Mexico State University this year, made that clear in a tweet: “Had @GovMLG provided the appropriate funding towards mental health for student athletes instead of vetoing it, maybe UNM wouldn’t be in the middle of a lawsuit.”
UNM isn’t commenting on the litigation directly, but said through a spokeswoman the “mental and physical well-being of our students is of the greatest importance.”
Allegations in a complaint are just that. Allegations. But these are serious and systemic. UNM’s leadership, including regents, President Garnett Stokes and Athletics Director Eddie Nunez should want honest answers that go far beyond the kind of specific fact-finding needed to resolve this case.
The best way to do that is to commission an independent, outside examination and commit up front to making the findings public. That’s fair to current and future Lobo student athletes, coaches and fans.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.