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‘I don’t know his reasons’: Reactions mixed to WSU coach Rolovich’s decision to decline COVID-19 vaccine

July 22, 2021 Updated Thu., July 22, 2021 at 10:02 p.m.

WSU Cougars Coach Nick Rolovich stands on the field in Martin Stadium Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)
WSU Cougars Coach Nick Rolovich stands on the field in Martin Stadium Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich has both supporters and critics after he declined to say Wednesday which exemptions to WSU’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement – whether religious, medical or personal – applied in his decision not to get the vaccine.

WSU’s second-year football coach declined further comment in that statement, which explained why he will not attend Tuesday’s Pac-12 Football Media Day. The event is requiring participants to be vaccinated.

“It’s a very unfortunate decision short of an important medical reason, which I cannot imagine what that would be,” said Doug Call, the chair-elect of Washington State’s Faculty Senate.

While the Pac-12 Conference as a whole does not have a vaccination policy, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told ESPN on Thursday the conference is considering rules to force teams to forfeit games this fall if they can’t field a full squad due to COVID-19.

WSU students and staffers can apply for a personal exemption if they don’t want to get the vaccine. Anyone exempt will have to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing, and may be subject to other public health measures when on university property, WSU President Kirk Schulz reiterated in a statement Wednesday after Rolovich’s announcement.

WSU Athletics Director Pat Chun said in a statement Wednesday he and Rolovich had “multiple conversations” regarding the coach’s decision not to receive a vaccine.

“I see both sides of the issue here,” Faculty Senate Chair David Turnbull said. “I can understand people looking at somebody like a coach and saying somebody of that stature should come out and explain why they are deciding to do what they’re doing, but I also see an individual’s desire to want to keep that kind of thing personal and to themselves.”

Detractors on social media have demanded transparency from Rolovich, citing his public status as a Pac-12 football coach and WSU’s highest paid employee. His salary was $3.2 million last year, according to state payroll data.

“He’s a mentor and a leader in the athletics program. As such, we would argue that he should be exhibiting professional conduct serving as an example as a responsible member of our community,” Call said. “It’s really disappointing that he’s chosen this path, and I imagine his actions will encourage some students not to get vaccinated.”

Call called Rolovich’s decision “a slap in the face” given efforts at WSU, and Pullman, in trying to keep the virus controlled.

That includes work by senior Jelani Christopher and the Associated Students of Washington State University Issues and Forum committee. Christopher, committee chair, said the group spent part of last year hosting town halls and talks with experts in epidemiology to dispel misinformation about vaccine safety.

“I don’t know his reasoning, and I think that he should explain so people don’t jump to conclusions,” Christopher said, “because if someone were to put out a statement like that saying, ‘I’m not going to get the vaccine and I’m not going to clarify why not,’ it seems like they’re doing it just out of pure choice.”

Christopher said he feels Rolovich’s silence on his reasoning is “a disservice to the people that count on him to be a representative of the school.”

“If it can affect the season where if there were to be an outbreak among the team and it caused them to forfeit a game or something,” Christopher added, “then we have to know if there was a way that it could have been prevented before it gets to that point.”

Eastern Washington University Athletics Director Lynn Hickey said how Rolovich handles this is his personal decision.

“From the outside, it looks like it makes things a little more difficult maybe for his team in trying to encourage the students to be vaccinated,” Hickey said, “but not knowing his reasons, I think it’s really unfair to make any kind of judgment call on his decision. I’m sure he’s doing what’s best for his family and for his programs, so I would think that everybody needs to give him some grace for that.”

For EWU’s part, Hickey said the university’s athletic coaches and staff across all sports are “pretty close to being all in” with COVID-19 vaccinations, alluding to a couple of exemptions for medical reasons. David Riley, the new men’s basketball coach for the Eagles, was a summer raffle winner through EagsVaxUp, EWU’s COVID-19 vaccination incentive program.

Hickey said the Big Sky Conference has not made a decision on whether to force teams to forfeit for COVID-related reasons.

“We’ll continue to work real hard to give everybody a chance to have as much information as they can to make what they feel is the best decision for them,” Hickey said. “It will be really detrimental if we can’t get a good number of our students vaccinated. We’ve got some teams that have done really well and we’ve got other teams that we’re still working with.”

Both EWU and Whitworth University have COVID-19 vaccination policies. Unlike WSU, the universities do not offer a personal exemption.

Whitworth Athletics Director Tim Demant said he believes “most” coaches and athletics staff have received vaccines. Neither EWU nor Whitworth could provide figures.

Demant said he agrees Rolovich has a right not to get vaccinated and, in the same respect, to privacy.

“I don’t know his reasons for not,” he said. “He may have a condition that could preclude him from it. He may have a religious reason for not doing it. But I think that’s his right to exercise those exemptions.

“Whether it’s medical or religious or I think WSU allows for personal belief, these are all private things,” Demant added. “Just because you’re a public employee or work for a state institution, doesn’t mean every aspect of your life (is public). … People like to know more than they deserve to know.”

Gonzaga Athletics Director Mike Roth did not respond to a request for comment. The department issued a statement reiterating Gonzaga’s vaccination policy, part of which requires employees to submit proof of vaccination or a religious/medical exemption by Aug. 6.

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