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Washington State football program’s vaccine hesitancy may prove costly for Cougars

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks during the Pac-12 media day.
New Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff, speaking at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles, said Nick Rolovich’s decision on vaccination was “not our business.”
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

One by one, eleven of the Pac-12’s football coaches strode maskless to the podium at the conference’s media day on Tuesday, each fully vaccinated against the virus that upended last football season. They extolled the virtues of the COVID-19 vaccine as the pandemic threatens to alter another season.

While the 11 spoke at length about player safety and personal responsibility from a stage in Hollywood, one of their peers remained noticeably absent.

A thousand miles away, in Pullman, Wash., the Pac-12’s lone unvaccinated head coach sat alone in front of a camera, hoping to avoid the subject entirely. Washington State’s Nick Rolovich announced last week he wouldn’t attend media day, where proof of vaccination was required for coaches and players. So Rolovich joined by Zoom instead, his seat sitting empty as his two players answered questions about their coach’s choice in the back of the room.

Rolovich declined to explain his decision not to receive the vaccine on Tuesday, but said he “wholeheartedly supports” any players who choose to get vaccinated.

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“I plan on adhering to all policies that are implemented for the unvaccinated at the state, local, campus, and conference level,” Rolovich said. “I’m not against vaccinations. … I urge everyone to consider being vaccinated.”

In his first public address, new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff also urged others to get the vaccine, but when asked about the conference’s stance on Rolovich’s decision, Kliavkoff said it was “not our business.”

“The decision whether he gets vaccinated or not is a private decision,” Kliavkoff said. “We don’t mandate that anyone gets vaccinated.”

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said SEC expansion strengthens the Pac-12’s standing and potential new members would have to clear a high bar to join.

A mandate will, however, be in place this fall on Washington State’s campus, where all students and staff will be required to either provide proof of vaccination or apply for a religious or personal exemption. Eight other Pac-12 schools, including USC and UCLA, have already announced similar requirements. Those granted an exemption must still wear masks, socially distance and test regularly — all challenging rules to follow as head coach of a largely vaccinated team.

The policy appears to have put Rolovich at odds with his own university. Shortly after announcing his decision on Twitter last week, Washington State president Kirk Schulz stated the university “has an obligation to service the public good and promote the health and safety of its communities.”

Asked how the university felt about his decision, Rolovich said the two sides maintain “an open line of communication.”

“I don’t mean to cause any heartache to this university or to this athletic department or this state,” he said.

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Nick Rolovich appears on a screen at a Pac-12 media event.
Washington State coach Nick Rolovich answers question via video conference during the Pac-12 media day on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

If the Pac-12 adopts forfeit rules for COVID-19 this fall, Rolovich’s status could become a competitive disadvantage. Kliavkoff told ESPN last week that he was “leaning towards” reverting to the league’s previous rules, which forced schools unable to field a full team due to COVID-19 positive test results or close contact exposure to forfeit.

That policy, Kliavkoff said on Tuesday, isn’t likely to be finalized until mid-August. When it is, it could leave teams like Washington State, with 25% of its players unvaccinated, at greater risk of an outbreak that forces a forfeit.

At USC or Arizona, two of the four schools where better than 90% of the football team is vaccinated, there’s far less concern.

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“We believe it’s a competitive advantage to get vaccinated — to live freely, let’s say, in terms of their health and their wellness,” Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said.

Washington State’s Max Borghi may have to socially distance from his coach this fall, but as Rolovich disappeared from virtual view Tuesday, his vaccinated star running back defended his coach’s decision not to get the vaccine.

“He’s done nothing but prove to this team and to the community how much he cares about us,” Borghi said. “During the pandemic, he was helping small businesses. If a place was going to go out of business, he’d go buy 140 meals for the team from there. He’s truly a good guy, and he truly cares. I support Coach Rolovich and any of his decisions.”

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As for his own choice to get the vaccine, Borghi said, “I think it’s helping. It’s been a long year for everyone, and we’re going to do whatever we can to get away from [COVID].”


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