Once again, Nick Rolovich wriggled through a loophole.
Three weeks ago, the Washington State University football coach revealed in a tweet that he was unvaccinated despite WSU’s mandate that all students and staff get the jab. It remains an abdication of leadership of staggering proportions, but Rolovich’s tenuous out-clause was the university’s allowance of exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons.
By all indications, Rolovich is using the latter as his justification for defying the considered wisdom of his boss, WSU president Kirk Schulz, a learned man with a PhD in chemical engineering who said in a statement released shortly after Rolovich’s tweet: “As the state’s land-grant research university, WSU has an obligation to serve the public good and promote the health and safety of its communities. The science clearly shows that the COVID-19 vaccine nearly eliminates the chances of death or serious illness related to a COVID-19 infection and is a critical element in protecting public health locally and worldwide.”
As of yet, that argument has clearly not resonated with his football coach, the only unvaccinated Pac-12 coach and thus the only one not allowed to attend last week’s Pac-12 media day in Southern California.
This week, however, it seemed Rolovich would get entangled in Gov. Inslee’s new requirement that all state workers must be vaccinated – with the “personal reasons” exemption removed. Rolovich isn’t just any state worker; he’s the highest paid, at $3.2 million annually, and has one of the highest profiles.
But on Monday we learned that the edict doesn’t apply to employees in higher education. Inslee urged colleges and universities, as well as other government entities not specifically tethered to this requirement, to nevertheless adhere to it. But it’s not a job requirement; only, I would argue, one of reason, leadership, and common decency.
So the Cougars move into preparation for the 2021 season with this issue still hanging uneasily over them. It’s a dark cloud that isn’t going to go away unless Rolovich has a change of heart and gets the shot. I’m presuming that if the university administration was going to use his vaccine stance as a reason to oust Rolovich, they would have done so by now, and not allow him to begin preseason practices last Friday.
Speaking remotely to reporters at media day, Rolovich said, “I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state.”
Well, I don’t know about heartache, but Rolovich’s decision has caused headache, distress and distraction to a program that should be embracing a promising season fueled by a talented roster. CougCenter, an SB Nation fan site, posted an article headlined, “Nick Rolovich’s anti-vax stance is an embarrassment to WSU,” and another (by a different author) that called for his ouster. They weren’t alone in their rancor.
The questions hanging over this team would normally be the standard ones – and the fun ones everyone loves digging into. Who will win the three-way quarterback battle? Will Max Borghi break out as one of the best running backs in the country? Is this the year the Cougs finally end their Apple Cup hex?
Instead, we’re left wondering how Rolovich will be able to run the team while adhering to Schulz’s stated rules for the unvaccinated, which include omnipresent masks and social distancing. I’m curious to see the mechanics of that. How will Rolovich be able to huddle with the team, advise quarterbacks during timeouts, exhort the squad in pregame?
Those are standard coaching duties that would seem to require hands-on contact; or, at least, would be maximized by such. Indeed, football coaching is fueled by passionate and close-quartered interactions. Rolovich will have to convey his from a six-foot distance.
We’re also left to wonder how susceptible the Cougars will be to a Covid outbreak. The Spokesman-Review reported recently that 85% of Cougar athletes and coaches are vaccinated, but the number for the football team was 75%. That’s lower than what has been reported in most other Pac-12 football programs. Washington coach Jimmy Lake said Saturday the Huskies were at 95%. At media day, new Arizona coach Jedd Fisch put the Wildcats’ number at 97.4% (115 of 118).
The Spokesman-Review quoted WSU athletic director Pat Chun, who said the Cougars’ football team is “on a pathway to get to 85 percent.” One has to wonder, of course, how much of the remaining vaccine hesitancy among the squad is driven by seeing their leader and mentor refusing to get the shot.
Teams that fall victim to Covid outbreaks this year could well face more than just game cancellations, as happened three times to the Cougars last year in what ultimately was a four-game season (twice because of outbreaks in their own program, including the Apple Cup, and once because Cal couldn’t field a team). Though no decision has been made, new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said last week he is leaning toward making teams forfeit games if they can’t play because of Covid.
A note here to the “personal freedom” folks who say that Rolovich’s vaccination decisions are no one’s business but his own. Indeed, he’s entitled to go shot-less, but I would counter that his position of power and influence makes that a highly irresponsible stance that warrants all the criticism he’s getting.
As Covid cases and hospitalizations spike again, especially those of the more troublesome delta variant, it’s worth remembering that despite all the misinformation being peddled by anti-vaxxers, the preponderance of experts is unequivocal in urging people to get the vaccine. I feel safe in believing that includes the doctors and researchers at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
We all want to get out of this mess and back to normal lives. We thought we were heading there. But the more people who go unvaccinated, the greater chance that the virus will replicate and create mutations that turn into variants increasingly resistant to immunity from either immunization or natural infection. Not to mention that getting the shot helps protect the vulnerable people who can’t get it by virtue of age or health risks like cancer.
I sincerely hope that as the Cougars continue preparations for the 2021 season, Rolovich alters his game plan and gets the jab. The loopholes have saved him, but the coach could do a lot of good by rolling up his sleeve.