There are many questions regarding the vaccination status of Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich and no answers as the Oct. 18 deadline for state employees to be fully vaccinated nears.
Has Rolovich received a vaccine? Will he? Will he apply for a medical or religious exemption from the state mandate?
You won’t get answers from Rolovich, who repeatedly brushes off questions about the subject, most recently Monday, when he said over and over again, “I’m not going to talk about that.”
You won’t get answers from WSU President Kirk Schulz or Athletic Director Pat Chun, both strongly pro-vaccine. When both were asked for comment, a Washington State official said Wednesday that they cannot legally discuss an employee’s medical situation.
The silence only adds to the frustration many WSU football fans have felt since Rolovich announced in July that he was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and did not plan to get the shot, saying the reason for his decision would remain private.
“I am super frustrated and horribly embarrassed that my football coach was the only coach not at Pac-12 media day physically because he refused to get vaccinated,” said WSU alum Cindy Brunson, a former ESPN SportsCenter anchor who now works for the Pac-12 Networks. “And the fact that he is the highest-paid employee ($3.2 million per year) in the state of Washington at a university that has bent over backward to become a leader in the medical field is beyond my comprehension.
“I just can’t wrap my mind around it, and it’s so incredibly frustrating. … The fact that he can’t get (a vaccination) for whatever reason, is beyond me.”
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Aug. 18 that everyone working in education must be vaccinated as a condition of employment. He set a deadline of Oct. 18.
Rolovich has said several times that he would comply with the mandate, but that could mean he is seeking an exemption. He hasn’t specified that, either.
“We are not at liberty to talk about an employee’s medical situation — it’s pretty straightforward that that is confidential — but that said, we fully expect that all of our employees are either going to be vaccinated or have received a religious or medical exemption by Oct. 18,” said Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications. “If they don’t, the governor’s mandate is clear, you cannot work for WSU after that date, the 18th. If an employee does not comply, the mandate requires separation with that employee.”
Fully vaccinated means two weeks after the final of the two shots from Pfizer and Moderna and two weeks after the single Johnson & Johnson shot. The deadline to receive the first Moderna dose passed last week. The final day to receive the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be Oct. 4.
“If you were someone who got the vaccine late and you didn’t have the two-week period between your last shot (and the 18th), you would have to either take annual leave or leave without pay,” Weiler said.
Rolovich could avoid getting vaccinated and still be in compliance with the mandate if he were to request, and be granted, a medical or religious exemption. As of Tuesday afternoon, at least 4,799 exemptions had been filed by workers at 24 state agencies, according to state spokespeople.
Weiler said WSU worked with the state attorney general’s office on the exemption requirements for students and employees. He said requirements at WSU are consistent with the requirements of other state agencies, in which a religious exemption starts with a series of questions to determine the sincerity of the request.
“Simply saying, ‘It’s against my religion’ is not sufficient to qualify for a religious exemption,” Weiler said.
“You have to explain what are the tenets of your religion that prevent you from receiving a vaccine,” Weiler said. “Another question that is asked is: Have you ever received a vaccine or sought medical care as an adult? It seems to me that if you have a long-held religious conviction against receiving vaccines, and you can prove that and can demonstrate that the religion you follow has that as a tenet of the religion, then you would qualify.”
Weiler said exemption requests will be reviewed by a team that includes staff from the AG’s office. Weiler believes the reviews “will be done blind, meaning we won’t know who the person [requesting the exemption] was or what their job was, so there would be no question if someone was getting preferential treatment.”
Weiler said that if an exemption is granted, the human resources staff will determine whether “they can effectively do their job if they are not vaccinated.”
“There is a possibility you can receive an exemption but have that exemption not be valid based on the job you perform,” Weiler said.
Whether that will be relevant in Rolovich’s case is a mystery, just like almost everything else regarding the situation.
The public likely will learn Oct. 18 or soon after whether Rolovich has complied. Even then, it will be just a yes or no answer from the university, as Weiler said the school cannot legally say how an employee complied, whether by vaccination or exemption.
Meanwhile, the university continues to get bad publicity.
“It saddens me to see the hits that the university has taken,” said Jack Thompson, the former WSU star quarterback and longtime booster of the program. “It hurts to see from an alumni standpoint.”
Thompson is vaccinated and believes in the COVID-19 vaccines, but is a friend of Rolovich and still supports him as the team’s football coach.
“But I’ve always said this, and nothing has changed: No one is bigger than the university,” Thompson said. “I consider Kirk Schulz and Pat Chun as friends as well and they have responsibilities, too. I am just glad that I am not the person charged with making decisions in this regard.”
Brunson makes it clear where she stands.
“I know from folks that I’ve talked to in Pullman that (Schulz) and (Chun) have done everything they can think of to try and get as many medical professionals in front of (Rolovich) as humanly possible, so that he is armed with all the facts and information to make an informed decision,” Brunson said. “And then he still opts not to listen to the science. I think it’s a slap in the face to every kid who attends classes that needs to be vaccinated and needs to wear a mask, and here is the football coach just saying ‘Nope, I am not going to do that.’
“That violates my sense of right and wrong. That makes me close my checkbook (to WSU) and that makes me incredibly frustrated.”
Brunson said the money she had earmarked for Washington State athletics was instead being used on a home renovation project.
“(Rolovich) is a leader of men, and what he does matters,” Brunson said. “As much as people say they don’t want to be a role model, he is. That’s the bottom line, and his actions and words matter. As he continues to sidestep the governor’s mandate, the pit in my stomach grows every day.”
Thompson, meanwhile, takes solace in his strong belief in Schulz and Chun.
“Kirk and Pat will make the best decision for Washington State University, that I can bank on,” Thompson said.