Coming into the Final Four this weekend is a welcome spring ritual. In both the women's and men's NCAA basketball tournaments, these semifinal rounds cap weeks of tough competition and stunning upsets.

I have been interested in the unique status of college athletes since I was a college student. The demands made of student-athletes and their ability to manage their time and still have a college experience is something that continues to amaze me to this day.

And the pressure! Especially for the big two: football and men's basketball. As exciting and demanding as all college athletic programs are, football and men's basketball bring in the big bucks for their schools and the stress increases accordingly. The "student" in student-athlete often falls by the wayside and football and basketball players move in their own rarefied universe.

Until recent years, playing in the NCAA was an especially lopsided proposition. Student-athletes could earn no profit from their image or prowess, and one injury could end their athletic career and their education.

That situation is improving, and the ability for individual athletes to earn money from their image is a huge gamechanger. It's bringing some of the less-visible sports into the limelight as individual athletes are becoming national and global influencers and picking up sponsorships.

For host universities, football and men's basketball remain the big money draws, however. And in our state, this has resulted in some very upsetting results.

At UNM, gross financial mismanagement meant that winning teams like men's soccer and cross country had to be jettisoned to save the moneymakers.

And for NMSU's men's basketball team, well, there really aren't words, are there?

Last fall, an NMSU basketball player got in a fight at the NMSU-UNM football game, and the grudge match resumed at 3 a.m. the morning of the November 19 basketball matchup at UNM. The player, Mike Peake, pulled a gun and shot a UNM student after being fired upon and hit with a baseball bat.

(This was outside a UNM dorm complex. Let's also remember a UNM women's basketball player left the team and the school last fall because of on-campus violence.)

Where the story really goes to hell is that the coach loads Peake and the rest of the team back onto the team bus and head south on I-25 the following morning without fully cooperating with police. Then the school tweets the game is cancelled. Peake's tablet, gun and cell phone were turned over to police later that day by coaching and athletic department staff.

NMSU did exactly nothing for two weeks, finally suspending Peake December 6. It would get worse from there.

On February 10, reports of gross hazing by three NMSU basketball players emerge. According to police reports taken from the player who had been hazed, the hazing has taken place since the summer. The head coach, Greg Heiar, who had already tried to hide one of his players from police after a fatal shooting, was finally fired, and the team's season ended.

If that student-athlete hadn't stepped forward, would Heiar still be coaching? The athletic director, Mario Moccia, remains unscathed. Apparently, this is just a basketball thing.

(I know, the chancellor didn't have his contract renewed. But there is baggage with that individual beyond the basketball team and my word count.)

Somewhat quickly a new coach has been found. Leading up to this moment, all we have heard from NMSU are dodges, platitudes, and concern about saving "the program."

"The program" is 20 young men. All but one are from out of state. They came to Las Cruces to play a sport they love and get an education. At least one was horribly abused by three teammates in full view of the entire team. Another has killed another man. That's 25% of "the program" right there.

"The program" needs to be scrapped. And the young men of "the program" have already made a good start of the scrapping.

As of March 20, seven players had entered the transfer portal and one other has tweeted his intention to do so. One more has entered the NBA draft. One player who is already signed to another team, Shahar Lazar, said, "I don't think that the program I originally committed to aligns with my beliefs and core values." Lazar is an Israeli armed forces veteran.

A new head coach was found with somewhat astonishing speed. And in his introductory press conference, new head coach Jason Hooten is the only person at NMSU who has said anything worth a damn about this awfulness.

"This is a culture time. A new culture needs to be built and a new start, new beginning," Hooten said. "But also, more than anything, when you hear of New Mexico State, you think of a great, historic, traditional basketball program where the people really care."

Where the people really care. Care enough to do something about campus violence. Care enough to stop sexual assault when they see it in the locker room. Care enough to make their players take accountability when faced with their own actions.

It starts with the head coach. But the players, trainers, assistant coaches, coaches, athletic department staff, athletic director and university leadership are part of this picture too. I hope Hooten is more than a one-man force for cultural change.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at

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