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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The next act for fired Rolovich could be anti-vaxxer hero

Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich calls plays against the Utah State Aggies during the first half of college football game on Saturday, Sep 4, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars head coach Nick Rolovich calls plays against the Utah State Aggies during the first half of college football game on Saturday, Sep 4, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Now we wait to see whether Bartleby the Scrimmager will expand upon his insistent but vague refusals.

So far, there’s not much reason to think so. The determined vagueness of former Washington State University football coach Nick Rolovich regarding his vaccine refusal has been almost impressive.

Despite his willingness to drag into chaos the program that made him the most overpaid of all the overpaid college coaches in the state, there was something rare and fascinating, in this gabby, self-revealing age, to see someone buckle down on refusing to explain himself even as so many people waited on his answers and the future of his players hung on his decisions.

It was never clear whether he thought he could make the matter vanish through stubbornness or whether he simply assumed that the primacy of football would triumph over all other priorities once again. But day after day, since he announced his decision to skip the shots, he answered questions about it much like the famously mulish clerk in the Melville story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” who answered every request from his employer with only: “I would prefer not to.”

Rolovich’s version was: “I’m just going to follow (the) mandate.”

Which was no answer. Even when it emerged, unsurprisingly, that he had sought a religious exemption as a Catholic, according to an interview with his former mentor, that didn’t explain much, given that church leadership has been supportive of vaccination.

Rolovich hung fire until the ax fell Monday – a decision that also was not fully clear, given that it’s not known whether his religious exemption was denied or whether it was granted but the university could not safely accommodate it.

In either case, Rolovich took a selfish, irresponsible path then kept a lot of people on pins and needles. He had the freedom to make his own decision, of course, just as he had the freedom to stay mum about his reasons. But in both decisions indicated a man placing his own prerogatives above those he purported to lead and represent.

On a campus where 90% of students and faculty are vaccinated by requirement, a university that has worked hard to build its status as a science and research institution, it would have been a travesty had the football coach been given a pass not granted to others.

Rolovich left without saying anything after his firing, but one wonders if he’ll become more effusive in the days to come. Whether he rationalizes or defends or complains or sues.

In the reaches of the politicized anti-vaxxer movement, after all, Rolovich is perfectly cued up as a victim-hero. He’ll have open invitations to be hailed as such if he wants them. He’ll surely be the subject of think pieces on cancel culture, vaccine edition.

In the media spin cycle where the pandemic is a conspiracy, public health expertise is derided, and the best tools to control the virus are tyrannical, Rolovich is primed for his turn as the Nathan Hale of the new revolution.

It’s begun already on the fringes. An anti-vax, conspiratorial blog posted: “WASHINGTON STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL COACH NICK ROLOVICH REFUSES TYRANNY FOR THOSE BEING SILENCED. A FIGHT FOR NATURAL IMMUNITY.”

Another called Rolovich and his four fired assistants “the latest victims of medical tyranny.” InfoWars – where mass shootings are considered staged events – posted a piece asserting he’s the victim of religious discrimination, though it’s not at all clear whether his religious exemption was denied or whether the university could not find a way to accommodate him and keep other safe while granting it.

It is all but certain that this iteration of victim-hero Rolovich will creep from the fringes into the talk shows of Fox News, where a wild drumbeat of anti-vaxxer idiocy, tales of governmental health tyranny, and the hero-victimhood of vaccine refusal plays day after day.

One wonders if Rolovich will join in. It may not seem likely, based on his taciturnity so far, but losing a multimillion-dollar job might change things.

He wouldn’t be the only vaccine hero-victim from Washington right now if he does. A state trooper losing his job for vaccine refusal is getting that hero-victim treatment already for his final radio sign-off: “This is the final time you will hear me in a patrol car and Jay Inslee can kiss my ass.”

He had a radio interview cued up the next day.

All of these outliers – coaches, firefighters, cops, nurses and others who chose not to get the shots and suffer the consequences – will get as much attention as they desire, hailed by some as hero-victims in our dumb new civil war.

Meanwhile, vaccination rates among public employees have been rising steadily since the mandates were implemented, now exceeding 90% of state workers. Among employees at WSU, it’s similarly high, and other state schools are even higher. Around 50 WSU workers have been let go over vaccinations, out of about 10,000.

It’s clear that some agencies will have a larger problem than others in terms of losing workers – chiefly, ironically, among the cops and firefighters – but the overall picture is clear: many, many more people have gotten vaccinated, and that is excellent news during a pandemic that is still costing lives for no good reason.

The stories of the victim-heroes swim against this life-saving trend, but they are as relentless as the tides.

Rolovich has so far been stoic and uncomplaining, truly the pandemic’s Bartleby. He prefers not to, he prefers not to …

Whether he takes them or not, he’ll have a lot of chances to expand on that now.

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