HOLLYWOOD — While Nick Rolovich spoke, his seat sat empty.
Washington State’s second-year football coach delivered a marathon, 10-minute opening address at Pac-12 media day Tuesday, his face broadcast on a television hanging awkwardly eight feet from an empty table. On the opposite end of a conference room on the second floor of the W Hollywood Hotel, two of his players — running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods — faced forward, watching.
Because they had received a COVID-19 vaccine, Borghi and Woods were permitted to attend Tuesday.
And because he didn’t, Rolovich wasn’t.
“As I go forward, I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus and conference level,” said Rolovich, the only Pac-12 coach not in attendance, who added that roughly 75% of his team is vaccinated. “I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff and coaches.”
At Washington, meanwhile, 100% of football staff, 91% of football players and 90% of all student-athletes have chosen to be vaccinated, according to athletic director Jen Cohen. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff added that eight of the conference’s 12 teams are at least 80% vaccinated, and six have reached 90%.
“We have been strongly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, including through educational webinars and public service announcements,” Kliavkoff said. “We plan to have safety protocols in place that include regular testing for any student-athlete who is unvaccinated as well as for anyone vaccinated or unvaccinated who is symptomatic.”
Kliavkoff and Co. also are considering a forfeiture policy for any team unable to participate due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, UW coach Jimmy Lake is eager to avoid more missed games.
“Just having our season get derailed last year when there was no vaccine, we don’t want that to happen again,” Lake said. “Then to have the news of the N.C. State baseball team (having multiple players unavailable due to COVID-19 at the College World Series) and how that thing transpired and how that probably cost them a championship, we don’t want that to happen to us.
“We still have a sour taste in our mouth from our season getting derailed last year, and nobody wants that to happen again. I am very happy to say that, with our whole building for the most part, I believe the coronavirus will not have an effect on our team, for sure.”
And yet, Lake emphasized that this was ultimately a personal decision for each of his players. Associate team physician Kim Harmon and senior associate athletic trainer Daren Nystrom were brought in to educate the team on the vaccine’s effects.
“We brought in experts that are way smarter than me, doctors that went to school maybe quadruple the amount of time I went to school,” Lake said. “We brought these men and women in to talk to our team, to talk to our staff as well, talk about what the vaccine means, the positives, the negatives. After all the information that we received, … it was 100% that you should go get this vaccine. It is the best thing to do to end the pandemic and protect your safety. That was the information we received from some really smart people.”
Added Cohen: “One, I’m just so proud of our university. UW Medicine is a community gem and a national gem and a global gem. So to be able to be right there on campus with those doctors, those researchers and that type of education, it’s just a continuous awareness with where we live in our county and in our state that this is going to be the way we’re going to beat this pandemic. We all want to get back to full stadiums and sports and businesses and healthy people. So I’m really proud of the fact that our student-athletes have engaged and our staff has engaged in vaccinations.”
Going forward, UW students and staff are required to be fully vaccinated or declare a “medical, religious or philosophical” exemption. Unvaccinated students and staff are required to wear masks indoors on site at UW, and masks are encouraged but not required “when in outdoor crowded settings and settings where there is a decreased ability to consistently maintain a physical distance between others.”
“I totally respect that it’s a fine line and it’s personal,” Cohen said of student-athletes’ vaccination decisions. “We have a university that has an expectation that students and staff are getting vaccinated, and I think that has really helped us in our leadership roles to help promote that.
“I think when these kids start to look at, ‘Is this going to be a forfeiture? And who’s going to pay for that forfeiture (on the field)?’, these are real issues. So hopefully we’ll continue to see vaccination numbers across all of our student-athletes, not just at Washington but across the entire league, grow.”
In Pullman, Rolovich’s vaccine endorsement comes with unavoidable asterisks. He said Tuesday that “we will continue to educate the remaining (unvaccinated) players on the benefits of it. I think we all know this virus is deadly, and these vaccines are free. I urge everyone to consider being vaccinated. I do.”
In Seattle, that education yielded convincing conclusions — and a 91% player vaccination rate.
“It’s sad, all the misinformation that is out there,” Lake said. “We wanted to bring in the professionals to say, ‘Hey, here’s the real scoop,’ for the coaches, for the staff, and for the players not to (depend on) something they’re seeing on Instagram or social media or something they’re Googling, and who knows what they’re reading. We wanted to bring the real information right to them, and then let them make the decision.
“Of course, we’re not going to force anybody to do it. But we did want to lay out the information and then let them make their decision. I am very, very thankful that almost 100% of our team decided to get the vaccine.”