With Nick Rolovich fired as Washington State University’s head football coach after his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination, students on campus reacted mostly in support of the move, with some questioning both the former coach and the school’s decisions as the vaccine mandate for most state workers locked into place Monday.
“I think it’s fair. If I had to get vaccinated, why can’t he?” said Amelia Kohut, WSU freshman nursing major. “I had to get vaccinated to come here. It makes sense.”
For students who are also fans of the football program, the firing of the state’s highest-paid employee mid-season “definitely sends a shockwave,” said Rex Miller, junior construction management major.
The firing has ended the months-long debate over Rolovich’s decision not to get vaccinated, which he disclosed in July. In August Gov. Jay Inslee announced a vaccination mandate for most state employees, including those at universities and colleges, as well as health care workers.
At news conferences, Rolovich repeatedly avoided answering questions about his vaccination status, leaving many to wonder whether he had gotten the shot, whether he requested an exemption and whether he would still have his job after Monday’s deadline. On Oct. 9 he confirmed he had filed for a religious exemption.
Several WSU football players voiced support for their coach on social media. Much of the debate over Rolovich’s decision not to vaccinate revolved around his $3.2 million annual salary.
Kohut said she was glad the university stood firm on its policy, “especially if he’s making that much money,” she said.
“I think a lot of fans were frustrated he was being so stubborn about it,” Miller said. “But, honestly, I don’t believe the state or the school should have any authority over whether he got the vaccine. I think it should have been totally up to him.”
Doug Call, president of the WSU Faculty Senate, described the university’s procedure for blind reviewing religious exemptions as “a pretty clean-cut process.”
“Anyone who is a fan of his coaching, and I have no reason to question his coaching ability, they may be disappointed that has happened,” he said, “but at some level, it also builds confidence in the process that this person went through a blind process, the outcome was what it is and had it been the other way, you may have had some conspiracy theory going on generating in the background.”
For teaching assistant Cam Ward, who like all faculty had to be vaccinated to work, WSU administration had every right to fire Rolovich, he said.
“He should have just gotten it, he had a pretty good job,” Ward said. “We need to hold everyone to the same standard. I’m a TA and I had to get vaccinated, so he has to, too.”
Ward said he felt Rolovich put the school in a tough position because of his refusal to get the vaccine, and then his refusal to talk about it openly.
Rolovich remained quiet about his reasoning until an article in USA Today earlier this month quoted his former coach June Jones saying Rolovich had filed for a religious exemption. After the report, many speculated on Rolovich’s religious affiliation as well as whether he would be around for the rest of the season.
Miller said the rumor mill probably would have been quieter had Rolovich been more transparent.
As a student, Kohut said, she has the right to know whether the school employs someone who decided not to get vaccinated. With all of her professors required to follow the mandate by getting vaccinated or asking for reasonable accommodations, she said Rolovich’s firing shows he was not considered to be above school policy.
Some students questioned what they considered the school’s interference on Rolovich’s personal liberties.
Cody Fitzpatrick, freshman civil engineering student, said he supported the vaccination but did not necessarily support a government or schoolwide mandate. He also said people should retain the right not to talk about whether they’ve gotten the vaccine.
However, Fitzpatrick said, Rolovich is a major figure in WSU athletics and “probably should have just gotten it.”
“I think it would be different if he wasn’t head coach, if he wasn’t interacting with players and other people,” Fitzpatrick said. “If he’s in that position, he should tell. The players and his staff and his bosses have the right to know.”