Sports

The Bigger Reason Washington State Fired Its Vaccine-Refusing Football Coach

Other coaches around the sport, of all backgrounds and politics, understood what he didn’t.

Rolovich in headset and mask with his arms folded on the sidelines, looking upward with players behind him
Then–Washington State head coach Nick Rolovich during the second half of a game against USC at Los Angeles Coliseum on Dec. 06, 2020, in L.A. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The truism that tough times reveal the truth about people has always had holes in it, and it’s been especially flimsy during the pandemic. If someone gets sick with the coronavirus, or loses their job or a loved one to it, that doesn’t reveal much about them. If they find the relentlessness of this period in history to be so overwhelming that they don’t function well, that doesn’t tell us much about their character, either.

But the pandemic has revealed something about one particular kind of person: college football coaches. In 2020, it showed their doggedness to have a season at almost any cost, despite the obvious (and realized) likelihood that lots of people involved would catch COVID. If they had canceled the games, coaches would’ve gotten paid anyway. But they and many of their players were so committed to football as a concept that the season went ahead regardless. It was a miserable year.

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Still, the pandemic also showed something encouraging about coaches: that they could read a card to support public health when necessary. The vast majority of them, some of whom are the highest-paid public employees in whole states, said and did the right things as it related to standard-issue public-health advice. There was LSU’s Ed Orgeron, in mid-March 2020, exhorting the entire state of Louisiana to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds and be careful. There was Alabama’s Nick Saban, three months later, cutting PSAs about masks and social distancing. There was Georgia’s Kirby Smart this year, repeatedly telling Dawg fans to get vaccinated. These are not revolutionary actions, but it was good that most coaches recognized their platforms and at least performed the perfunctory duty of setting a good example. There’s no aggregate data on player vaccination rates, but stories abound of teams with near-total vaccine participation. The team at Ole Miss is 100 percent vaccinated, in a state where vaccination rates have been low.

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There is—or more accurately, was—one notable exception: Nick Rolovich, the head coach that Washington State fired Monday after his monthslong refusal to take the shot. Rolovich was the only head coach among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams (and 32 NFL teams, for that matter) to acknowledge in public that he hadn’t gotten the vaccine. Rolovich had until this week to comply with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate for state employees. He applied for a religious exemption, which a committee reviewed blindly and provisionally approved. But Wazzu athletic director Pat Chun, after consulting with HR and safety officials, decided Rolovich could not perform his duties without threatening public safety. Chun fired Rolovich for cause, which could be the start of a legal saga between the coach and his former school.

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For a certain kind of person, Rolovich will become an avatar for personal choice and fighting back against government overreach. Stupid as his decision to fritter away a $3 million salary and a Power Five coaching job is, it will look to some like principle. But Rolovich is not even a good standard-bearer for the anti-vaccine movement, if such a thing can exist, nor has he asked to be made one. Rolovich is something a lot simpler: He is the coaching profession’s most high-profile failure of the entire pandemic, in ways that go beyond not getting the shot. He is also a selfish coward, in ways that exceed any health risks he poses by not getting vaccinated.

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Rolovich, previously a well-liked coach at Hawaii, took the job at Washington State in January 2020. That summer, college football players joined millions of other Americans in the streets, not only making racial-justice demands of their own campus leadership but also asking, in some cases, for concessions related to pandemic working conditions. At least five Washington State players signed onto a list of demands Pac-12 athletes made of their conference and schools. Among those demands was the “option not to play during the pandemic without losing athletics eligibility or spot on our team’s roster.” Wazzu receiver Kassidy Woods, who has sickle cell anemia, decided not to play in 2020.

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In a phone call with Rolovich, which Woods recorded and shared with the Seattle Times, Rolovich told Woods he had no problem with his opt-out, but that his advocacy with the other Pac-12 athletes was “going to be an issue if you align with them, as far as future stuff.” He mentioned Woods’ scholarship status beyond that season, in particular. Rolovich tried to walk back what he said on the call, saying he regretted that his words were “construed as opposition” and that he supported player activism. A year later, Woods sued Rolovich and the school. It called into question Rolovich’s fitness to lead, but he survived. He did not become one of the biggest stories in sports until it became clear that the coach who threatened a player for activism related to a pandemic would not do the easiest thing to alleviate the effects of said pandemic.

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There are medical reasons for some people not to take a COVID vaccine. There might be spiritual reasons for others not to take one. (I’m not interested in making judgments of those here.) Not taking the vaccine does not automatically, on its own, make someone uncaring about others. But if Rolovich had a good reason, he never stood up for it. He never made a claim on a medical exemption, and in fact never elaborated on his reasoning in public at all. When he became a sideshow at the Pac-12’s preseason media days by showing up virtually as the only unvaccinated head coach in the league, he stressed it was his own decision and said he wouldn’t comment further. He was dogged in following through on that. In a September press conference, a reporter practically pleaded with Rolovich to explain himself, and he wouldn’t. “I don’t know if it’s all that positive to get deep into it with the media the way it’s going,” he said. “I’m just going to try to keep that to myself and concentrate on being the coach here.”

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It isn’t a principled stance if the person making it won’t say why they’re doing it. It might never be clear if Rolovich had a serious spiritual reason for not wanting the shot. He wouldn’t tell his coaching mentor, June Jones, who exasperatedly recounted their conversation to a USA Today reporter. “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.” Rolovich never did take one for the team, nor did he have the courage to tell people why he was throwing so many others into a state of chaos.

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There are well over 100 players and staffers in the Wazzu football building, many of whom have spouses, significant others, and children. Their lives are in upheaval with Rolovich gone, something Jones said he explicitly warned his mentee about. This eventuality did not move Rolovich either—not the remaining assistant coaches who will likely need to look for new jobs in a month and a half (four others were fired along with Rolovich), not the dozens of players who signed with Washington State expecting to play for him, and not the class of 2022 recruits whose futures are now uncertain as they wait to see who Wazzu’s next head coach is and if he wants them. Some current players seem devastated. Quarterback Jayden de Laura said “words cannot express our profound sadness and disappointment” in Rolovich’s termination and tweeted a raised fist of solidarity along with that statement. Yet Rolovich’s QB acknowledged the broader stakes in a way the head coach never did: “We also understand that Cougar Football has always been bigger than any one person.”

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Other coaches around the sport, of all backgrounds and presumably of different political persuasions, grasped their responsibilities to their own people. They understood that the vaccine was about public health, hopefully, but they at least knew it was about leadership, and about doing their job as frontmen for big universities with big followings. They at least acted in self-preservation, but in doing so they also helped their teams stay on course.

It was Rolovich’s rejection of his own obligations to others, more than his 5–6 record, that should be the defining characteristic of his two years in Pullman. That abdication of responsibility underlined his treatment of Woods, an athlete who was supposed to be under Rolovich’s care but came under his threat. Now it is the main takeaway from his hostility to the vaccine, which he never could admit was about a lot more than himself. In the end, Rolovich’s commitment to avoiding the shot was stronger than his commitment to all the people he was paid to lead.

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