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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: WSU should stick to its guns on Rolovich’s shots

Washington head coach Nick Rolovich answers questions via video conference during the Pac-12 Conference football Media Day on Tuesday in Los Angeles.  (Associated Press)
Washington head coach Nick Rolovich answers questions via video conference during the Pac-12 Conference football Media Day on Tuesday in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

Maybe Wazzu ought to make Nick Rolovich do all of his coaching remotely.

Just pipe him in from some faraway basement, calling plays and hollering formations by Zoom. Imagine the amusing mixups over muting and unmuting. Think of the high-pressure distress when his connection glitches out on a key fourth-and-inches call.

It would be a real pain in the neck, this highly unlikely hypothetical. But it would also be an excellent way for Washington State University to clearly emphasize – to Rolovich and to its students, faculty and staff, as well as the now-watching world – that its commitment to vaccination and the safety of all is not subject to a glib, unexplained veto by a coach.

For Rolovich, the highest-paid and highest-profile Cougar as its football coach, it would be a potent reminder of something the young people he leads are told constantly: Choices have consequences.

That’s the part that goes missing among the clarion calls of freedom among the anti-vaxxers, and particularly in the idiot wind blowing from politically motivated anti-vaxxers that is nourishing the pandemic when it could have been defeated.

The contours of this pushback have been dominated by freedom talk and completely missing any mention of consequence and responsibility, as though freedom is some teen dream of pure liberty – do whatever dumb thing you want, put yourself and others at risk, with no repercussion or cost.

Rolovich is free not to get vaccinated. He’s free to refuse to explain himself even a little bit, whether he has one of the vanishingly rare legitimate reasons not to get the shots or whether he’s under the influence of bad ideas.

Washington State is equally free to require vaccinations, as schools have wisely done for a long time, and to impose consequences to protect the health and safety of its community. People are free to wonder and ask about his reasons, and he is free to say as much or as little as he chooses to say in response, and people are free to keep right on talking and asking about it.

I am free to say Rolovich has failed his responsibilities as a public figure representing an institution of higher learning – one that has worked to establish itself as a center of scientific research and which just opened a medical school, for heaven’s sake – and has displayed a lack of respect and care for the young men he’s supposed to lead, the program thousands of fans follow, and the institution that pays him so lavishly.

You are free to say I’m wrong to say so, a consequence I must accept.

That’s the way this whole freedom thing works. It’s not a one-way street, and it comes with stop signs. Our freedoms are especially constrained by our employment. None of us who works for others does so without conditions, and many of these conditions infringe on our liberty.

We’re free to sleep the day away, but we can’t keep our jobs if we do. We’re free to tell off-color jokes or drink whiskey on the clock or shoot chew spit onto the floor – Don’t tread on me, man! – and our bosses are free to require that we don’t.

We’re all free not to get vaccinated – thereby keeping alive a global pandemic and putting others at risk of serious illness and death – and society’s grownups are free to choose not to associate with us anymore. We’ve already paid too many of the consequences for the reckless decisions of COVID deniers and liars.

It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. In many ways, football has been a consequence-free zone at WSU, piling up debt unchecked even as the rest of the institution cuts back.

On the matter of the vaccine, though, President Kirk Schulz has indicated he will be strict about enforcing the vaccination mandate, and emphasized those who receive exemptions will have to be masked and observe social distancing. It would really be something to see Rolovich coach a full season in a mask and a 6-foot bubble; and it will really be something, in an entirely different way, if that’s not what happens.

Administrators defend athletic excess by claiming that high-profile sports are the “front porch” of the university – a way to draw students, donations, alumni commitment and other forms of support through the front door.

But that works both ways. Rolovich has now attracted national attention for his decision to participate in the Pac-12 media day remotely, rather than get his shots. It was a headline feature of all the media-day previews, and he received several questions about it via Zoom, though continuing to say nothing about his reasoning.

He can try his best to make it go away, but it won’t go. It will come up again and again and again. People will speculate and criticize and defend him online. Commentators will bring it up in every televised game.

Reporters will continue to ask Rolovich, Schulz, the players, Athletic Director Pat Chun – everyone – about the decision, and the context of those questions will be this: The delta variant is bringing the pandemic back with a vengeance, officials are beginning to advise the return of masking and safety measures we had hoped were gone, and it’s the fault of those millions of Americans who are refusing to do the one thing that could bring it to an end.

Not the kind of front porch Wazzu is hoping for.

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