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News >  Higher education

Ex-Washington State coach Nick Rolovich files letter of appeal with university over firing

UPDATED: Thu., Nov. 4, 2021

Nick Rolovich stands on the sidelines during his final game as Washington State head football coach, a 34-31 victory over Stanford on Saturday, Oct 16, 2021, on Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Nick Rolovich stands on the sidelines during his final game as Washington State head football coach, a 34-31 victory over Stanford on Saturday, Oct 16, 2021, on Gesa Field in Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Former Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich has submitted an appeal to the university over his dismissal last month for failing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The 34-page letter, dated Tuesday, is addressed to Athletic Director Patrick Chun from Rolovich’s attorney Brian Fahling.

“An appeal of this sort is usually the employee’s opportunity to restate his case and plead with his employer. But we see this appeal differently,” Fahling wrote. “This is your opportunity to take a step back, reexamine your illegal and unconstitutional conduct, and adopt a different posture toward Coach Rolovich before you and the University are forced to defend your conduct in the context of a federal court civil rights action.”

A WSU spokesman declined to comment.

Rolovich was given a notice of termination “for cause” Oct. 18 by Chun after his request for a religious exemption for a COVID-19 vaccine was denied. Rolovich is technically on paid leave at this point, according to the university; his contract allowed him 15 days to submit an appeal to Chun.

With the appeal in hand, Chun will now have 10 days to review the submission and decide if termination is still warranted. If he upholds it, Rolovich will have 15 more calendar days to appeal that determination again, this time through President Kirk Schulz who will make the final determination.

‘Get vaccinated or resign’

The appeal claims Chun demonstrated “hostility” toward Rolovich’s religious and scientific reasons for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.

The letter goes into Rolovich’s reasoning for his objections, which are partly drawn from an opposition to medical research based on aborted fetal tissue.

The COVID-19 vaccines were researched and developed using fetal cell lines – cloned copies of cells from the same source that are grown in labs – that originated from abortions decades ago. The vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells.

“Mr. Chun even told Coach Rolovich that his request for a religious exemption would be denied and he would be fired unless he agreed to be vaccinated,” Fahling wrote.

A statement from Fahling last month outlining Rolovich’s plans to take legal action stated that the exemption was denied “by the University,” with WSU allegedly indicating that no accommodations would have been made even if the exemption had been granted.

The appeal letter, meanwhile, claims WSU Human Resource Services informed Chun that a “good faith review” process determined Rolovich was entitled to a religious exemption. The athletics department, according to the appeal, ultimately rejected the request.

Human Resource Services found Rolovich “articulated a ‘sincerely held religious belief’ that prevented him from complying with (Gov. Jay Inslee’s) mandate.” The appeal stated Rolovich submitted his religious exemption application Sept. 28.

Rolovich’s firing took place after a number of meetings he and Chun had in the months prior, according to the appeal.

In a meeting May 24, according to Rolovich, Chun “stated he was worried about Coach Rolovich’s mental health and then accused Coach Rolovich of having extreme views regarding many issues.” Three days later, Chun allegedly told Rolovich “the Coach’s beliefs were making him incapable of leading his players.”

On Aug. 16, Rolovich was allegedly called into an “urgent meeting” with Chun and Bryan Blair, deputy director of athletics, where he was told about plans to disallow state employees from applying for personal exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The three met again Aug. 19 where Rolovich was allegedly given four choices: get vaccinated, don’t and get fired, claim an exemption or resign immediately. During this meeting, Chun reportedly said Rolovich’s objections were causing Chun and Schulz reputational damage.

“Mr. Chun then stated that Governor Inslee ‘did this’ just to come after Coach Rolovich and WSU,” Fahling states, characterizing that as to mean Inslee invoked the mandate because the state’s highest paid, and one of the highest profile, state employees asserted personal or religious objections to the mandate. “Mr. Chun also admitted to Coach Rolovich that the Board of Regents wanted him fired.

“At this point in the heated exchange,” the appeal continued, “Mr. Chun modified his earlier statement: he now said that Coach Rolovich only had two options: get vaccinated or resign.”

Chun set a deadline for Rolovich to get his exemption approved by Aug. 29, the Sunday ahead of WSU’s game against Utah State on Sept. 4, according to the appeal. He claims Chun and Blair did not give him any information about the university’s policy or exemption approval procedures.

According to the appeal, after Chun was informed by Human Resource Services that Rolovich was entitled to a religious exemption, the WSU Athletics Department replied Oct. 13 stating the department rejected the proposed accommodations and could not accommodate the request.

The department similarly rejected an individual assessment from WSU Environmental Health and Safety that outlined “interventions and countermeasures” to accommodate Rolovich’s working environment, according to the appeal. The appeal claims the Athletic Department cited lost donor commitment, media scrutiny surrounding Rolovich’s vaccination status and damage to the university’s reputation.

‘Ran roughshod over their policies’

WSU employee religious exemptions were evaluated through a blind review process. The identities of those making the requests were unknown except in instances when additional information was needed.

Citing past media coverage on the blind review, the appeal claims the university violated the procedure, interpreting that Rolovich’s identity would be kept confidential and his supervisor, Chun, would not be notified or involved until the blind review was complete and the exemption was approved.

Rolovich’s appeal also argues that firing the former coach “for cause” would have required a certain due process with a neutral decision-maker.

“The University did not leave the question of whether Coach Rolovich would receive an exemption in the hands of its ‘blind review process,’ but instead handed the reins over to Mr. Chun,” Fahling wrote. “And Mr. Chun was anything but a neutral decision maker.”

The appeal goes on to allege that the university – as well as Inslee and the state – expressed hostility toward religious exemptions, giving preferential treatment to medical requests.

In addition to challenging the university on its processes, the letter called out Chun and others for allegedly flaunting COVID-19 protocols.

As an example, the appeal cited how Chun was seen and photographed unasked at an indoor donor event over the summer. The letter also pointed to how coach Jake Dickert and players Chau Smith-Wade and Kaleb Ford-Dement did not wear masks on an Oct. 28 episode of the WSU Football: U.S. Bank Coaches Show.

The letter closed in claiming that Chun and WSU “ran roughshod over their policies and Coach Rolovich’s rights because they saw his religious beliefs as an embarrassment.”

“The ‘reputational’ damage that WSU has allegedly suffered was self-inflicted, but the reputational damage suffered by Coach Rolovich was caused by the University’s and Mr. Chun’s bad faith actions throughout the entire process.”

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