PULLMAN – It feels like any other August on the football practice fields at Washington State, other than the mask coach Nick Rolovich and a few of his assistants wear.
But outside the insular world of the football program, the scrutiny has been far from normal since Rolovich announced July 21 that he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and did not plan to get the shot, saying the reason for his decision would remain private.
In doing so, Rolovich went against WSU’s mandate requiring all university employees and students be vaccinated, but received an exemption. The university allows exemptions for staff and faculty for medical, religious and personal reasons, but the personal reasons exemption will soon be eliminated for students and is being reviewed for faculty and staff members.
The coach’s decision not to get vaccinated looms large as the Cougars, who missed three games due to in-house and opponent COVID-19 issues a year ago, prepare to navigate another season amid the pandemic. Outside pressure has mounted following Rolovich’s decision, with calls for the coach to resign or be fired if he does not change his stance.
WSU athletic director Pat Chun, who is vaccinated, made it clear Wednesday that he backs his coach, saying Rolovich is the right person for the job despite the two being diverged on the vaccine decision.
The coach might have to make another choice soon.
WSU, the first public university in the state to implement a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, announced Thursday that it plans to discontinue personal and philosophical exemptions with its student vaccination requirement once the FDA grants full approval to any of the three vaccines being used under emergency authorization.
Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications at WSU, said the school is also looking at possibly eliminating those exemptions for faculty and staff.
“We’re still doing a legal review, because making it a condition of employment is different – we have a different relationship with employees than we do with students,” Weiler said. “We have requirements in place for students for measles, mumps, rubella (that do not include personal or philosophical exemptions) and those types of vaccines, so adding the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t a stretch, but we are looking at whether we have the authority to do that with employees as well.”
Meanwhile, Chun has advocated for others to get the vaccine and said he had many long conversations with Rolovich on the topic. Chun certainly hasn’t been surprised by the outcry against his coach. He expected it.
“Nick and I talked it through, and we both knew there would be (an uproar),” Chun said. “Everyone understands this a very political issue with the vaccine. To Nick’s credit, he wanted to be transparent about why he wasn’t going to be there. I care about Nick, he’s a good person – and I understood the second he made that statement, the impact that would have on him personally and professionally. That was a heavy toll that was going to be paid with the announcement.”
Rolovich, who said last month that the reasons for his choice will remain private and added that he won’t comment further on his vaccination status, said this week that he hasn’t paid attention to backlash. At Pac-12 media day, the coach said he supports vaccinations and doesn’t want to be a distraction to his team. Rolovich was not allowed to attend media day because he isn’t vaccinated, and he met with the media via video conference.
“I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff, coaches,” he told reporters. “I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state.”
Rolovich also said at media day that 75% of the WSU football team was vaccinated. Chun on Wednesday said he had no updates on that number or for the athletic department overall.
On Thursday, the Pac-12 announced an updated COVID-19 forfeiture policy, stating that teams unable to play a conference game due to an outbreak must forfeit rather than have the matchup declared a no-contest. Last season, the Cougars missed three games due to COVID-19 issues – two of which were opponent related.
Rolovich, meanwhile, is undergoing daily COVID-19 testing and wears a mask. Chun said the coach is adhering to all protocols.
“I feel we have tons of protocols in place, the masks and the testing,” Rolovich said. “I commend the kids because this is not the experience they signed up for.”
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