ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Top administrators at New Mexico State University wanted to find just the right wording to announce that they were pulling the plug on the men's basketball season following reports of alleged hazing involving team members.
It was a busy afternoon in February — Super Bowl Sunday, in fact — as university officials traded emails and made suggestions before dropping the bombshell that the season was finished. They wanted the message to address the safety of students as well as the integrity of the university. And time was of the essence.
“We don’t want our student athletes to hear this via media,” wrote Ann Goodman, the dean of students.
A review of hundreds of emails obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request provides insight into the damage control undertaken by New Mexico State University after news broke about the hazing allegations. It capped an already difficult season that had been marred by a deadly shooting on a rival campus after an Aggies basketball player was ambushed in retaliation for a brawl that broke out in the stands at a football game weeks earlier.
More than 2,400 pages of documents released by the university also show the disappointment and anger of fans and alumni over what many referred to as a “black eye” for the school. They also reveal the flurry of requests from reporters seeking interviews and the pitches from experts to hold training sessions for student athletes on preventing hazing, sexual assault and other misconduct. School staff also discussed creating a seminar for students, similar to one offered at Colorado State University.
The emails include reports from a media consulting group that tracked mentions of the battered school as administrators shared posts about other universities that were dealing with their own scandals, including Harvard's women's hockey team, though they preceded the more recent hazing scandal at Northwestern University.
Advocacy groups have been pushing for federal legislation for years, saying hazing is a nationwide problem, but it has been difficult for them to cite data since there are no national reporting requirements.
At NMSU, law firms were hired to conduct independent investigations into the shooting and hazing allegations, and to take an in-depth look into the athletics department.
The discussions among NMSU administrators also provided an acknowledgement that they needed to do more to educate students on where they could report potential violations and misbehavior. They hired a noted expert to present a hazing prevention symposium this fall for “a deeply discounted rate of $5,700,” updated the student handbook and put up posters in team locker rooms, with the names and phone numbers of officials who can be contacted, including Athletics Director Mario Moccia's.
Moccia, who inked a contract extension that included a raise two months after the hazing allegations surfaced, outlined steps the school is taking to bombard students with more information this fall.
In his first interview since the allegations were made public, Moccia told The Associated Press that he hopes the efforts work.
“But ultimately, it’s up to the individual how much they will consume," he said. “Just like homework, you can't do the reading for them.”
The university also created an anti-hazing working group and is making its way through a list of 20 action items to address the concerns of state higher education officials.
Alumni and fans emailed Moccia and other school officials after the news broke, suggesting that the problems needed to be fixed quickly. In one email, Moccia summarized the reviews that were underway, saying none had yielded “any smoking guns.”
“The university did the most drastic thing that was possible,” Moccia said, referring to the cancellation of the season and the hiring of a new coaching staff.
Former head coach Greg Heiar and his lawyers have said he was made the scapegoat for hazing and other problems that Moccia and other administrators chose to ignore. The school disputed those claims in filings in an arbitration case.
The documents released by the university did not include any emails sent or received by Heiar regarding the team's problems, bolstering the coach's claims that he was kept out of the loop.
The New Mexico attorney general's office continues to investigate, and records show that the university paid $8 million to settle the lawsuit involving two basketball players who said they were sexually assaulted by teammates.
New Mexico is one the few states without an anti-hazing law. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to ask lawmakers during the 2024 legislative session to consider making hazing a crime.
Los Angeles-based attorney James DeSimone said there's often a cone of silence that surrounds hazing due to shame or embarrassment felt by victims or even denial among perpetrators or bystanders. Another challenge, he said, is that such behavior is allowed to happen over time, creating a cycle of abuse.
“Instead of a culture where abuse is tolerated and condoned, you know, you really have to create a culture where people have respect for each other,” said DeSimone, noting that it starts with coaches setting expectations for players.
DeSimone's firm is working on a case involving a University of California, Riverside student who died in 2018 while pledging for a fraternity. He said all universities should have liaisons who are trained to spot abuse and report it.
Having played baseball for the Aggies for two years and then in the minor leagues for the Detroit Tigers, Moccia said he never witnessed behavior in the locker room like what the former NMSU players described to law enforcement.
“Never in my life,” he said. “So yes, it was kind of like an atomic bomb, you know, when these allegations came to light. And I understand, it's unbelievably disturbing. We certainly feel tremendously for the individuals that were involved.”
Still, Moccia is confident following the review of an out-of-state law firm that interviewed dozens of student-athletes, coaches and faculty. He recited the findings word for word, saying the misconduct was limited to the men’s basketball team and was "a significant departure from the norm” for student athletes and coaches at the university.
A separate review by a New Mexico law firm included several recommendations.
The changes are a work in progress, Moccia said.
“I think in this world you could always do something more,” he said. “However, I think we’re doing about everything we can humanly possibly think of to educate our student athletes on where to go on a myriad of issues that might crop up.”