Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich confirmed a report Saturday that he’s seeking a religious exemption after refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
June Jones — Rolovich’s coach at Hawaii in the early 2000s — told USA TODAY’s Brent Schrotenboer that he has advised the second-year Cougars coach to receive a vaccine, but Rolovich has elected to file for an exemption and is awaiting word on whether he will be granted approval.
Rolovich acknowledged that he has applied for a religious exemption after the Cougars’ 31-24 win over Oregon State on Saturday afternoon.
“I’m not terribly happy with the way it happened,” Rolovich said. “I hope no player that I coach has to wake up and feel the way I felt today. I don’t think it was malicious, but that wasn’t a great thing to wake up to, to be honest with you.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced in August the state’s educational employees must be either fully vaccinated, or be approved for a religious or medical exemption by Oct. 18. If Rolovich fails to meet one of the requirements, his job will be on the line.
Rolovich, who announced in July he would not be receiving a coronavirus vaccine for “private” reasons, has declined to speak on his status regarding the state mandate. Jones said Rolovich did not elaborate on why he is refusing to receive a vaccine.
“I don’t know exactly, but I know he filed a religious exemption, and they haven’t decided on that yet,” Jones told USA TODAY on Thursday. Jones mentored Rolovich for several years in the early 2000s. Rolovich was Hawaii’s quarterback from 2000-01, and served as a student assistant under Jones from 2003-04.
“He believes the way he believes, and he doesn’t think he needs it. It’s like I told him: It’s not about him anymore. It’s about the people around you and the credibility of the university, and he’s got to take one for the team.”
Jones has been pleading with Rolovich to consider the consequences of his decision. He’s had “six or seven conversations over the last 60 days” with Rolovich.
“My advice is for him to take the shot,” Jones said. “There’s too much at stake to risk losing his job, and it’s an unfortunate situation. It may be against what he believes obviously, but there are more people at stake — the university’s credibility, the lives of the assistant coaches and their families. There’s a whole bunch more at stake than just him, and that’s exactly what I told him.”
WSU declined to comment on the report.
Rolovich’s application for a religious exemption will be reviewed by a “blind” committee, per a report from Jon Wilner of the Mercury News (San Jose). Committee members are not told who each applicant is.
Employees applying for exemptions must detail what beliefs prevent them from being vaccinated and explain why those are “sincerely held.”
Rolovich’s religious ideologies have not been shared publicly, but he comes from a Catholic background, and attended a Catholic high school in Northern California.
Last month, Billy Ray Stutzmann — a friend and former player of Rolovich’s — announced over Twitter that he had lost his job at Navy because his request for a religious exemption had been denied. Stutzmann’s brother, Craig, is WSU’s co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Both brothers attended a Catholic high school in Hawaii. USA TODAY reported that Billy Ray Stutzmann retweeted conservative comments last week that linked COVID-19 vaccines to abortion.
Pope Francis and many Catholic groups have endorsed the vaccines, but some conservative Catholics oppose them on religious grounds, “believing it is tied to abortion, which they oppose,” USA TODAY reported.
Aborted fetal cells aren’t present in these vaccines. A fetal cell line was used to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used a fetal cell line only early in testing, according to the article. That’s not unusual in modern medicine. Several common drugs — including Tylenol, Tums, Maalox and Pepto Bismol — are developed using fetal cell lines.
“A concern about the possible use of fetal cells to develop vaccines is not, by itself, sufficient grounds to grant an exemption,” WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said in the article.
Weiler told Schrotenboer that an approved exemption can be overridden in some cases if the person’s job puts them in close contact with the public — in other words, if the unvaccinated individual cannot perform his or her duties effectively while keeping the public safe.
According to Wilner, Rolovich would still have the option to get vaccinated by Oct. 18 if his exemption request is denied. If he does decide to follow that course, he will have to either take unpaid leave or vacation time until he is fully vaccinated — meaning, two weeks removed from his final shot.
Rolovich said in July that he is not opposed to vaccinations, but he’s kept mum on why he has decided not to receive this vaccine, and has not been transparent about the route he’ll take concerning the mandate.
He’s the only coach in major college football to announce that he will not get vaccinated. He is the only unvaccinated Pac-12 coach.
“Rolo is Rolo, and he is who he is because of the person he was,” Jones said. “He was a quarterback, kind of his own guy, a leader. He’s been that way as a coach. He believes that he doesn’t need to take it and doesn’t want to take it, and he doesn’t want somebody telling him what to do. But like I said, to me, there’s just too much at stake.”
The Cougar fan base has been divided for the past couple of months, and debate online is frequent. WSU’s program has received only one commitment from a high-school player since Rolovich’s announcement July 21.
WSU quarterback Jayden de Laura defended his coach’s actions after WSU’s win.
“I’ve been kind of waiting to speak on this issue for a while,” he said. “The players, we have no issue with coach Rolo. We have no issue with any of our coaches. We respect their decisions. I feel like it’s just, you know, the guys covering us. They try to dig a hole on our Cougar football team.
“We have no problem with Rolo. I respect him. I love him. I love him to death. I’d do anything for him.”
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