Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich has applied for a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate after refusing to be vaccinated despite pleas from his mentor to change his mind for the sake of himself and others, according to that mentor, June Jones.
Jones told this to USA TODAY Sports on Thursday night as Rolovich faces an Oct. 18 deadline to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or get approved for an exemption, according to the mandate for Washington state employees. If he doesn’t meet those requirements, Rolovich could lose his job, risking a once-promising career.
“He and I have had six or seven conversations over the last 60 days, and my advice is for him to take the shot,” said Jones, a former NFL head coach who coached quarterback Rolovich at the University of Hawaii in 2000 and 2001. “There’s too much at stake to risk losing his job, and it’s an unfortunate situation. It may be against what he believes obviously, but there are more people at stake – the university’s credibility, the lives of the assistant coaches and their families. There’s a whole bunch more at stake than just him, and that’s exactly what I told him.”
Rolovich, who also served as a student assistant under Jones at Hawaii in 2003 and 2004, didn’t elaborate on the reasoning behind his refusal to get vaccinated, Jones said.
“I don’t know exactly, but I know he filed a religious exemption, and they haven’t decided on that yet,” Jones said. “He believes the way he believes, and he doesn’t think he needs it. It’s like I told him: It’s not about him anymore. It’s about the people around you and the credibility of the university, and he’s got to take one for the team.”
The WSU athletics department declined comment Friday when asked if Rolovich wanted to address the matter.
Despite getting frequent questions about it from the news media, Rolovich has declined to explain his vaccine status after announcing in July that he had elected not to get vaccinated for private reasons.
WSU spokesman Phil Weiler also declined to comment.
“Legally, we cannot comment on an individual employee’s medical status,” he said.
WEEK 6: USA TODAY Sports staff picks, bold predictions
ANALYSIS: UConn at UMass worst game of this season – and maybe any other
At WSU, applications for religious exemptions are reviewed by a committee and are “blinded” so that the reviewers don’t know who the applicant is, according to Weiler, who explained the process generally.
“The religious exemption questions ask requestors to explain specifically what tenets of their religious practice prevent them from being vaccinated or from receiving other types of medical care,” Weiler said. In addition, they are asked to explain why they consider this to be a “sincerely held belief.”
In some cases, Weiler said a decision for an exemption can be overridden if the person’s job puts them in close contact with the public.
If employees aren’t vaccinated and don’t get approved, they lose their jobs. Rolovich is in his second season at WSU with a record this season of 2-3.
A religious exemption application brings into question his religious beliefs, which he hasn’t publicly shared, though clues can be gleaned from his background and relationships. He comes from a Catholic family and went to a Catholic high school in Northern California.
Last month, a friend and former player of his, Billy Ray Stutzmann, announced on Twitter that he had lost his job as a football assistant at Navy because his request for a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate there was denied.
Stutzmann’s brother, Craig, is Rolovich’s quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator at WSU. Both Stutzmann brothers attended a Catholic high school in Hawaii. Earlier this week, Billy Ray Stutzmann retweeted comments from conservatives that linked the vaccines with abortion.
Even though Pope Francis and other Catholic organizations have supported COVID-19 vaccines, a number of conservative Catholics have opposed them on religious grounds, believing it is tied to abortion, which they oppose.
No aborted fetal cells are in those vaccines, and the cell lines that were used to develop or test them were derived from elective abortions decades ago. In the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a fetal cell line was used to produce it. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used a fetal cell line in early testing but not in production.
This is not new or unusual in medicine or in the development of other vaccines. A wide array of common household medications also used fetal cell lines in their development process but generally don’t draw the same resistance, including Tylenol, Tums, Maalox and Pepto Bismol.
That is why an Arkansas hospital asked those who requested a religious exemption to attest that they also don’t use those common products either for the same reason.
“A concern about the possible use of fetal cells to develop vaccines is not, by itself, sufficient grounds to grant an exemption,” Weiler said.
Rolovich has indicated he is not an anti-vaxxer in general but has an issue with these vaccines in particular. “I’m not against vaccinations,” Rolovich said in July.
He is the only head coach in major college football to publicly say he won’t get vaccinated, even as the vaccines have proven to be safe and effective against a disease that has claimed more than 700,000 lives in the U.S.
“It’s a personal decision for him, but it doesn’t display the person he is as a coach, the passion he has for the game, the passion he has for his players, and his ability to stand up for his players,” said George Rush, Rolovich’s former coach at the City College of San Francisco. “Although it’s not the decision I personally would make, when everybody is just beating you to death (with criticism about his decision), I think it takes a lot of courage to stand in there knowing his job is on the line.”
Rush said he himself is vaccinated. So is Jones, who said he initially didn’t want to get the shot until it got to be too problematic for him to travel without it.
“Rolo is Rolo, and he is who he is because of the person he was,” Jones said. “He was a quarterback, kind of his own guy, a leader. He’s been that way as a coach. He believes that he doesn’t need to take it and doesn’t want to take it, and he doesn’t want somebody telling him what to do. But like I said, to me, there’s just too much at stake.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org