PULLMAN — It feels like any other August on the football practice fields at Washington State, other than the mask coach Nick Rolovich and a few of his assistants wear.
But outside the insular world of the football program, the scrutiny has been far from normal since Rolovich announced July 21 that he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and did not plan to get the shot, citing personal reasons for his decision.
In doing so, Rolovich went against WSU’s mandate requiring all university employees and students be vaccinated, using a personal-decision exemption — an exemption that will soon be eliminated for students and is being reviewed for faculty and staff members.
The coach’s decision not to get vaccinated looms large as the Cougars, who missed three games due to in-house and opponent COVID-19 issues a year ago, prepare to navigate another season amid the pandemic. Outside pressure has mounted following Rolovich’s decision, with calls for the coach to resign or be fired if he does not change his stance.
WSU athletic director Pat Chun, who is vaccinated, made it clear Wednesday that he backs his coach, saying Rolovich is the right person for the job despite the two being diverged on the vaccine decision.
The coach might have to make another choice soon.
WSU, the first public university in the state to implement a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, announced Thursday that it plans to discontinue personal and philosophical exemptions with its student vaccination requirement once the FDA grants full approval to any of the three vaccines being used under emergency authorization.
Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications at WSU, said the school is also looking at possibly eliminating those exemptions for faculty and staff.
“We’re still doing a legal review, because making it a condition of employment is different — we have a different relationship with employees than we do with students,” Weiler said. “We have requirements in place for students for measles, mumps, rubella (that do not include personal or philosophical exemptions) and those types of vaccines, so adding the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t a stretch, but we are looking at whether we have the authority to do that with employees as well.”
Meanwhile, Chun has advocated for others to get the vaccine and said he had many long conversations with Rolovich on the topic. Chun certainly hasn’t been surprised by the outcry against his coach. He expected it.
“Nick and I talked it through, and we both knew there would be (an uproar),” Chun said. “Everyone understands this a very political issue with the vaccine. To Nick’s credit, he wanted to be transparent about why he wasn’t going to be there. I care about Nick, he’s a good person — and I understood the second he made that statement, the impact that would have on him personally and professionally. That was a heavy toll that was going to be paid with the announcement.”
Rolovich, who said last month that the reasons for his choice will remain private and added that he won’t comment further on his vaccination status, said this week that he hasn’t paid attention to backlash. At Pac-12 media day, the coach said he supports vaccinations and doesn’t want to be a distraction to his team. Rolovich was not allowed to attend media day because he isn’t vaccinated, and he met with the media via video conference.
“I’m not against vaccinations. I wholeheartedly support those who choose to be vaccinated, including our players, staff, coaches,” he told reporters. “I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or this athletic department or this state.”
Rolovich also said at media day that 75% of the WSU football team was vaccinated. Chun on Wednesday said he had no updates on that number or for the athletic department overall.
On Thursday, the Pac-12 announced an updated COVID-19 forfeiture policy, stating that teams unable to play a conference game due to an outbreak must forfeit rather than have the matchup declared a no-contest. Last season, the Cougars missed three games due to COVID-19 issues — two of which were opponent related.
Rolovich, meanwhile, is undergoing daily COVID-19 testing and wears a mask. Chun said the coach is adhering to all protocols.
“I feel we have tons of protocols in place, the masks and the testing,” Rolovich said. “I commend the kids because this is not the experience they signed up for.”
WSU players Jahad Woods and Max Borghi spoke about the team’s reaction to Rolovich’s decision at media day.
“It’s a lot of outside noise and people on the outside not knowing specifics,” Woods said. “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.”
Asked whether Rolovich’s stance might influence players’ decisions, Chun said, “everything is a concern.” But he added, “We have put experts, world-renowned scientists and people they know and trust in front of all of our student-athletes to make sure we are giving them all the right information.”
Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday announced a mandate requiring state employees to get vaccinated as a condition of employment, citing a spike of infections driven by unvaccinated people, with the only exemptions being for medical or religious reasons. However, Rolovich, who is the state’s highest-paid employee at $3.2 million annually, and all other higher education employees were not included in the mandate.
This week, Washington state surpassed 500,000 positive cases over the course of the pandemic, with the recent surge primarily being driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. Health officials have said disease modeling shows the delta variant likely accounts for more than 90% of new coronavirus cases in Washington.
For now, a normal football season with full crowds at Martin Stadium is planned. But for revenue planning purposes, Chun forecast attendance at 50%, “just out of an abundance of caution, so that gives us some breathing room.”
With the delta variant of COVID-19 raging, it’s impossible to predict what might happen. There’s also worry that Rolovich or his staff or players could be exposed to or contract the coronavirus.
“There is no replacement for Nick, and he needs to be available for every single practice — not just games — as the head coach and the person who runs this precision offense, the run-and-shoot,” Chun said. “That’s why he, and us all, are in strict COVID management. But it could happen, and if it does, we will have to address it appropriately at that time.”