For the coach of a team that played only four football games the past season because of COVID-19, Washington State’s Nick Rolovich has staked out an astonishing hill upon which he could die, giving literal meaning to the increasingly hackneyed expression.
Worse, his linguistic legacy could become an American verb:
To Rolovich: Acting in a manner stubbornly contrary to science, common sense, public health, sports-team principles and employment contracts, while offering no explanation for the behavior.
His surprising refusal to accept a vaccination, announced July 21 in a video ahead of the Pac-12 Conference’s annual media confab in Los Angeles, made for a national controversy and magnum embarrassment for WSU. The school had just cleaned up after eight untidy years with former football coach Mike Leach, and now comes a fresh mess “for reasons that will remain private,” Rolovich said.
On Thursday, WSU officials further tightened restrictions on students returning to campus by eliminating the claim of personal or philosophical exemptions as excuses to avoid vaccination. In a school release, the “increasing threat of the delta variant for those who are unvaccinated” was cited.
Once the FDA grants approval to any of the three vaccines under emergency use authorization, the policy will be implemented. The school also said the vaccination deadline was moved from November to Sept. 10. Failure to get vaccinated “may impact your ability to participate in campus events and you will need to wear a mask while on campus. You will not be able to register for spring classes, and a hold will be placed on your student account.”
Also on Thursday, the University of Washington, where the jab rate is more than 90 percent, a campus-wide letter was sent saying masks will be required at all indoor places regardless of vaccination status.
So UW and WSU are joining the vast majority of campuses across the nation by responding to the delta variant crisis by tightening protocols, which seem even more urgent given how many more young people are testing positive and requiring hospitalization.
These tightened rules don’t specifically include Rolovich, because he’s not a student. Instead he’s the state’s highest-paid employee ($3.2 million this year) in a category that is exempted by the state from mandatory vaccination. But the absence of a policy violation doesn’t justify rejecting public welfare for selfish reasons.
Rolovich, as well as any assistants who may share his views, are high-profile leaders at a state university fighting a public health crisis that so far has only one life-saving solution: Vaccination. Yet his contravention of policy has provoked no public sanction by WSU officials, who again appear stuck with a coach whose tail wags the kitty.
To use the trendy term, Rolovich and his peers are social influencers, even if not by preference. Though he’s supportive of vaccines for others, his public choice threatens the welfare of his players and future recruits by encouraging skepticism. Even Nick Saban, coach of the Alabama dreadnought in the heart of the strongest anti-vaxx sentiment in the country, understood matters well enough to create a PSA encouraging his fans to get jabbed.
“College football fans and players both want full stadiums this fall,” he said in the TV spot. “Let’s make sure we can safely make this happen by getting vaccinated. Please get your COVID-19 vaccine.”
WSU’s elimination of the “personal and philosophical” excuse for students further undercuts Rolovich’s position. The hope is that he doesn’t have a medical condition that dictates abstinence, but at least sharing such a circumstance would explain things and take pressure off him and his bosses.
Spokane TV station KXLY did a story on Dr. Serign Marong, a family physician who was a Cougars linebacker more than 20 years ago. Saying he was “disappointed” in Rolovich’s decision, Marong pointed to the episode as a distraction for a program that as, with the Huskies, didn’t manage covid well enough a year ago to salvage games.
“It’s just going to be a lot of non-football-related issues that might come from this,” he said. “To me, this just seems simple — well, let’s alleviate that, let’s stop that before that can happen and just by getting vaccinated.”
At least Rolovich is not a spreader of misinformation, nor belligerent toward his numerous critics. But his decision, backed only by silence, makes him a target for any subsequent covid problems that impact the team, as well as dead weight for department and school leaders who are unable or unwilling to create a solution.
Covid has been hell for everyone in every endeavor. All that’s being asked of Rolovich is to not make a bad situation worse.