As many have suspected for quite some time, Washington State coach Nick Rolovich finally confirmed that he remains unvaccinated and is in fact seeking a religious exemption to the state’s Covid vaccination mandate, he said after the Cougars’ 31-24 victory over Oregon State on Saturday.
Rolovich was responding questions prompted by a report from USA Today that was published Saturday morning, which featured the revelation from his former coach, June Jones, whom Rolovich played and coached under in the early 2000s.
“I’ll confirm that,” he said. “I’m not terribly happy with the way it happened. I hope there’s no player that I coach that has to wake up and feel the way I felt today. I don’t share it (to be) malicious, but that wasn’t a great thing to wake up to, to be honest with you.”
Rolovich also confirmed he has not gotten an answer from the university, but he did not elaborate beyond that other than to say, “Of course it’s been difficult for everybody. Players are going through some of the same things; it’s an incredible stress for everyone, especially the young people. For them to be able to keep their focus and continue to give to each other and to this program has been pretty special.”
When asked by a New York Times reporter if he felt like this was something that all could have been avoided if he’d made a different decision, Rolovich took a deep breath, paused, and said, “I guess, maybe.”
Jones also didn’t elaborate on exactly why or how Rolovich was seeking an exemption.
“I don’t know exactly, but I know he filed a religious exemption, and they haven’t decided on that yet,” Jones told reporter Brent Schrotenboer. “He believes the way he believes, and he doesn’t think he needs it.”
On what grounds Rolovich would apply for a religious exemption is unclear, given his insistence that this is a private matter. There are some circumstantial clues, though. It’s widely believed Rolovich is Catholic, and there is a fringe segment of that faith that has refused the vaccine on the grounds that it is derived from aborted fetuses — even though the Pope himself has endorsed receiving the vaccines, calling it “an act of love.”
Would WSU grant an exemption for such a belief?
“A concern about the possible use of fetal cells to develop vaccines is not, by itself, sufficient grounds to grant an exemption,” WSU spokesperson Phil Weiler said in the USA Today story.
The story also notes that many common drugs have been developed in the same fashion, including Tylenol, Tums, Maalox and Pepto Bismol.
“The religious exemption questions ask requestors to explain specifically what tenets of their religious practice prevent them from being vaccinated or from receiving other types of medical care,” Weiler said. In addition, they are asked to explain why they consider this to be a “sincerely held belief.”
It’s worth noting that a friend and former player of Rolovich’s, Billy Ray Stutzmann, was fired from his assistant coach position at Navy after failing to receive a religious exemption. Craig Stutzmann — his older brother — is quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at WSU. According to Schrotenboer, both Stutzmanns attended Catholic high schools, and Billy Ray has retweeted comments linking the vaccines with abortion.
We learned on Friday that WSU actually has granted a fair number of exemptions — more than 800 so far out of 1,250 requests across all of its campuses. However, only 437 of those requests have been religious, and only 98 of those have been granted “so far,” implying that some number of those 437 are still under consideration. The WSU system employs roughly 10,000 people systemwide.
Since Rolovich has said in the past he is not “anti-vaccination” in general, it leaves one to wonder how he reached this particular decision. Jones went a little further to try and reason it out.
“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.”
Jones is the first person to go on the record about Rolovich’s actions, and while it might seem like a curious decision at first, Jones is pretty direct about his motivation.
“He and I have had six or seven conversations over the last 60 days, and 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.”
Essentially, Jones has been begging Rolovich think of others in his decision and reverse course. If Rolovich were to be terminated as head coach, his assistants and other various staff members across the football program also would all very likely be out of jobs at the end of the season — they all are working on one-year contracts, and a new coach would bring in their own people. It’s not an exaggeration to say that literally dozens of lives could be affected by Rolovich’s singular refusal, and Jones reiterated this a couple of times in the story.
“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 said.
Although the deadline has passed to receive a shot in order to be fully vaccinated by the October 18 deadline, it’s believed there’s a little wiggle room for compliance. The state doesn’t want to fire employees; what it wants is for people to be vaccinated. If Rolovich were to reverse course and receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (which is one shot), it seems likely he’d simply be on administrative leave starting on October 19 and until he met “fully vaccinated” status sometime after that.
Of course, there’s always the possibility he receives the exemption and still doesn’t keep his job. If that’s the outcome, he won’t be the only one — the state’s fire marshal is expecting to lose his job after receiving a medical exemption due to the nature of his job duties, which require close contact with the public. It’s hard to imagine how a football coach would be treated differently.