When Nick Rolovich left the sideline on Saturday after Washington State’s come-from-behind win over Stanford, there’s a chance that it was the final time as the Cougars’ coach.
Rolovich has been seeking a religious exemption to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate that all state employees either attain fully vaccinated status by Monday or receive an exemption with accommodations, and he indicated after the game that he does not yet know his fate.
“I’m waiting on an email,” Rolovich said. “That’s as far as I know. ... I’m going to come to work tomorrow, I’m going to get ready for BYU and we’ll grade this film. I don’t think this is in my hands. I’ve been settled for a long time on it. I believe it’s going to work out the right way.”
Right way, as in staying the coach?
“Correct. Or, if that’s not what (athletics director Pat Chun) wants, then, you know, then I guess I gotta move on. But I like being here, I like being the coach here, I love these kids, and I just got faith in it.”
Rolovich, the state’s highest-paid employee at $3 million per year, announced in July that he was not vaccinated against Covid and confirmed last weekend that has remained unvaccinated and is seeking a religious exemption. Any state employee not in compliance with the governor’s mandate by Monday will be fired.
The determinations seem to be moving slowly across WSU’s system, and if it’s not finalized by Monday, it’s believed Rolovich would be placed on administrative leave, pending that determination.
While much has been made of the potential religious exemption, that’s not going to be the only factor in play when it comes to whether Rolovich will be WSU’s coach after Monday.
If the school’s review panel — through its double-blind review procedure that is out of the hands of the athletics department — determines he does not have “sincerely held religious belief” preventing him from getting vaccinated, then he will be out of a job, and WSU will be off the hook for the remainder of his contract. It’s that simple.
But even if his exemption is approved, the school must also determine if he can be accommodated. The nature of Rolovich’s job suggests that accommodations will be difficult, and Rolovich said after the game that he has not had any discussions with Chun about accommodations.
In asking around about this scenario, one source who regularly makes determinations of “reasonable accommodations” as part of their job (not at WSU, and not in the state of Washington) said the primary driver of their determinations is the safety of the other employees. Given that the governor’s mandate is a public safety measure, it’s reasonable to infer that the safety of others — employees and the public at large — will guide WSU’s thinking.
We know the best way to keep someone safe from an unvaccinated person is to keep the unvaccinated person away from them, but it’s difficult to imagine Rolovich can maintain physical distance from all the people he has to come into contact with (players, parents, recruits, donors, etc.). Would WSU sending an unvaccinated coach into the public be considered a danger?
It seems the answer would be yes. According to reporter Austin Jenkins, who covers Olympia about as well as anyone in Washington, accommodations that are being granted by the state — from whom WSU will likely be taking its cues — meant that “exempted workers generally had to be reassigned to a ‘back office’ job or one that allowed them to telework.”
Some have suggested that regular testing of Rolovich might do the trick, but Inslee has already said that regular testing on its own is not a suitable substitute for vaccination. The state reiterated that stance when Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson said in an email to Jenkins, “Mask and test was the approach used prior to the mandate and resulted in outbreaks for staff and clients who were being served. It did not work to meet the safety standards that are owed to our staff or clients.”
We already know that the Washington state fire marshal said he expects to lose his job — even with a medical exemption — because of a lack of reasonable accommodations, given that his duties require interaction with the public.
Another factor that makes this difficult to suss out is the unique nature of Rolovich’s job. When a determination is made about a custodian, a consideration has to be made as to whether all custodians with an exemption can be similarly accommodated. Rolovich, though, is one of one; the state’s only other college football coach is vaccinated, and WSU’s next-highest-profile coach (men’s basketball’s Kyle Smith) also is vaccinated.
Additionally, a football coach’s primary job is to win. So even if Chun decided that he could theoretically grant Rolovich accommodations — coaching alone in the press box during games, conducting all meetings/recruiting/public appearances via Zoom, etc. — wouldn’t that put WSU at a disadvantage relative to its competition?
And WSU continues to take a beating publicly from a PR standpoint. The Seattle Times has taken the school to task, the New York Times was in town last weekend (and appears to be back); Defector’s David Roth took Rolovich down on Friday; and Rolovich’s status — not the team’s recent uptick in results — was a talking point on the Saturday morning preview shows:
"Today could actually be the last game Nick Rolovich coaches as the Washington State head coach"@BruceFeldmanCFB has more on the vaccine mandate that is making things complicated for the Cougars' head coach ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/HSCDAVyvLR— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 16, 2021
Taken together, it would seem that Chun has a lot of leeway to interpret whatever guidance he’s getting from the school, and all signs seem to be pointing to Rolovich’s continued employment being untenable.
One other thing to consider: We don’t know how many other coaches are also unvaccinated and seeking an exemption. We know about half of WSU’s football staff has still been masking up at practices and games, so it’s reasonable to infer that whatever Chun decides about certain aspects of the potential accommodations could cause WSU to lose multiple assistant coaches, too — to say nothing about coaches in WSU’s other programs.