HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Right on cue, at 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, Nick Rolovich’s image appeared on the large flat screen parked at the front of the second-floor ballroom where Pac-12 football coaches and players gathered for the league’s Media Day.
For more than 10 minutes of his 25-minute virtual availability, Washington State’s second-year coach discussed the prospects of his football team this fall, the Cougars’ efforts in the weight room this summer and the recent ACL injury to Renard Bell, which will keep Rolovich’s top returning receiver on the sideline this season.
But not until Rolovich was 12 minutes into a long-winded opening statement did WSU’s coach address the vessel-sized elephant in the W Hollywood Hotel ballroom.
“The reasons for my individual choice will remain private,” Rolovich said. “However, I want to make it clear I respect, I support all the work being done by the State of Washington, who as a state has one of the highest percentages of vaccinations in the country. … As I go forward, I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus, conference level.
“I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff, coaches.”
Later on, the coach offered another response regarding the commotion and national attention that have come as a result of his decision not to receive a. COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state,” Rolovich said.
Among other conference-wide topics such as realignment and ongoing investigations at Arizona State, Rolovich’s decision not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine – which prevented the coach from being in attendance on Tuesday – was predictably a hot talking point at the Pac-12’s first in-person Media Day since 2019.
Before any coach or player stepped up to a podium on Tuesday, new commissioner George Kliavkoff was asked about the vaccine as it pertained to Rolovich.
“The decision whether he gets vaccinated or not is a private decision,” Kliavkoff said. “We don’t mandate that anyone gets vaccinated. We are not in the middle of that discussion with him. That’s not our business.”
Among the vaccine-related questions Rolovich fielded Tuesday – many of which he deflected, referring reporters back to a Twitter statement he made last week – the coach was asked about concerns his decision as WSU’s highest-paid employee would discourage others from getting their COVID-19 shot.
It apparently hasn’t had too big of domino effect within WSU’s athletic department, if any at all. Athletic director Pat Chun confirmed to The Spokesman-Review Tuesday that 85% of Cougar athletes and coaches are vaccinated. That number is lower for WSU’s football team – just 75% currently – but Chun indicated the Cougars are “on a pathway to get to 85%.”
The 75% vaccination rate is still one of the lowest in the Pac-12, however. Kliavkoff said two-third of teams in the conference have achieved a vaccination rate of 80% or higher, with half of those being at least 90% vaccinated.
The nature of the conversations held between Rolovich and WSU’s administration were characterized by Chun as “long.” The AD wouldn’t share the contents of his discussions with Rolovich, preferring to keep that information “private” and said while the coach’s decision “is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination … he’s made a decision and we’ll manage.”
Chun did continue to stress the importance of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, which will be mandatory for anyone on WSU’s campus this fall who doesn’t apply for a medical, religious or personal exemption.
“Everyone in and around Washington State University follows the science,” Chun said. “We know vaccines are safe, they’ve proven effective, we know 99% of those hospitalized with COVID illnesses are unvaccinated. We urge all Washingtonians to get vaccinated.”
A quick scrub of social media implies mixed reactions from WSU’s fanbase, with some going as far to call for the coach’s job. Players, for the most part, seem to be in unison backing their head coach. Despite being vaccinated themselves, the two Cougars in attendance Tuesday – running back Max Borghi and linebacker Jahad Woods – both offered comments conveying support for Rolovich and said his decision hasn’t caused a divide within the team.
“I just saw a lot of hate toward Rolo and his decision,” Woods said. “It’s a lot of outside noise and people on the outside not knowing specifics. You shouldn’t jump to conclusions when you don’t know the reasoning behind it. It’s funny because it hasn’t impacted the team in a negative way.”
Borghi also pledged his support for his coach while taking the time to explain his individual reasons for getting vaccinated.
“Like many, I’m sick of (COVID-19),” Borghi said. “I was just over the testing, was over all that and I felt like it was good for myself and my community if I did it. That’s my personal choice but everyone has the freedom of their own personal choice.”
Other Pac-12 coaches who were asked to weigh in on the situation involving Rolovich refrained from commenting specifically about the WSU coach, but shared their own thoughts about the COVID-19 vaccine. Washington’s Jimmy Lake said the Huskies brought in medical professionals to the football building to speak to players. UW’s team vaccination rate is at 90% with the coaching staff at 100%.
“At the end of the day it is a decision. It’s an individual decision for anybody, whether they want to get the vaccine or not,” Lake said. “I think the information our team heard, that our staff heard, it was overwhelming evidence the best thing to end this pandemic and to protect yourself and your family and your friends, it was to get the vaccine.”
On a similar note, Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith said, “I can speak to my personal preference and Oregon State highly recommended (the vaccine). I feel like the vaccine, it’s not just a personal choice but a choice for protecting others. At the same time, it is someone’s personal decision to make.”
Stanford’s David Shaw also offered his position on the COVID-19 vaccine as it relates to the Cardinal football team.
“Number one, I’m not going to mandate that anybody do something they truly don’t believe in. Mandate that they do something that is maybe not in their own best interest medically for themselves,” Shaw said. “I think it’s better and safer for all of us if everybody is vaccinated. As we all know, being vaccinated doesn’t keep you from ever getting the virus; it keeps it from being as severe as it could be without.”
In the coming weeks, Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 could unveil forfeiture policies that mirror those in other conferences if a team isn’t able to play due to COVID-19. Rolovich declined comment when asked if he felt his decision not to receive a vaccination would put the Cougars at a competitive disadvantage, and Chun said WSU would adhere to any policies the conference introduces.
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