As you surely know by now, Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich will not be at Pac-12 media day next week after choosing not to take one of the three safe, effective vaccines that are available. It’s the first real — and certainly most public — repercussion for his decision, and likely just the start of consequences for him and other unvaccinated members of the program, which could include forfeiting games because of an outbreak.
Rolovich’s only comment on the matter was a Twitter statement in which he said he has “elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for reasons which will remain private,” and that he “will not comment further” on his decision.
That’s just not good enough. And it is clear now that, one way or another, Nick Rolovich cannot be on the sideline in September — and should not be the coach at Washington State going forward.
Just about a year ago at this time, COVID-19 was nearly non-existent in Pullman and Whitman County as a whole. Washington State University had quickly sent students home and switched to virtual school in the spring — and summer is already quiet in the area anyway.
As students returned to off-campus housing against the urging of the university itself — contracts are signed well in advance, and if you’re spending the money why not live and hang out in Pullman while doing online classes? — cases began rising. By September, the National Guard was in Pullman doing daily testing. The school, already in a precarious financial position without students on-campus, faced a real crisis in Pullman.
In August, after a group of football players chose to opt out of the season for health and safety reasons while stating their support for the Pac-12 United movement, WSU coach Nick Rolovich isolated and ostracized each immediately and without warning in ways that are still stunning to me. On a recorded phone call, he told one such player, wide receiver Kassidy Woods, that for the good of the team, everyone needed to be on the same page and that Woods’ decision meant he wouldn’t be around the team. Effectively, Rolovich was saying you couldn’t be half-in.
Later that fall — once everyone had decided to play, after all — the football team suffered its own COVID outbreaks and was unable to complete even the partial season that was scheduled. The Apple Cup wasn’t played for the first time since World War 2, and it was because of an outbreak within the Washington State program. There were real consequences, even with protocols in place, when teams had players or coaches get sick. And there’s a real solution now — one that eases protocols on the individual and team — in the vaccine.
Repeatedly in interviews, Rolovich has mumbled away excuses or redirected questions about vaccinations — questions that are valid due to the restrictions placed on unvaccinated individuals and the university policy about vaccinations. He demurred and pointed to the medical staff, which got him through the last few months without too much friction.
But the rubber hits the road now: By making a personal choice not to be vaccinated, Rolovich has become what he decried with Woods — someone who will be unable to be all-in on the team this season and going forward. An easy immediate example is his inability to travel to Pac-12 media days, leaving two athletes as the in-person representatives without their head coach.
Beyond this dereliction of leadership within the team, it is an extreme risk to the current and future health of both Washington State University and its surrounding community to have the head football coach take a public stance against the vaccine that protects against COVID-19.
While Nick Rolovich stated it was a personal decision and kept his reasons to himself, he spoke as a representative of the university in announcing he was not and would not be vaccinated. That puts the school and community at risk, and puts Rolovich at odds with his athletic director, university president, and the stated values of the school.
Consequently, Washington State needs to start by suspending Rolovich immediately. He cannot speak on behalf of the school or as a representative at the present time — and without a suspension, he’s going to be sitting in front of a camera, taking reporters’ questions, next week. His views and decision puts him out of line with the people he reports to and organization he works for and puts all of it at risk. Whether the suspension is paid or not is not my concern.
Furthermore, Rolovich should not coach another game at Washington State. However that happens is fine with me. The university is almost surely examining his contract and looking for cause, as a matter of protecting the school, and at worst firing Rolovich without cause will cost the university 60 percent of his remaining $2 million a year base salary. The math works out to around $5 million and is, frankly, a fairly university-friendly agreement. This is also subject to mitigation (if he gets another job) in which that number could go down, not up.
The damage Rolovich has done and could continue to do to the university that I, and many of you, graduated from is too great to do anything but act now. He could have been an adult, stepped up and led his team, and gotten vaccinated.
Instead, he needs to go.