The axiom that adversity reveals the truth about people has always had flaws, and it has been especially flimsy during the pandemic. If someone becomes ill from the coronavirus or loses their job or a loved one as a result of it, it doesn’t reveal much about them. If they find the relentlessness of this period in history so overwhelming that they can’t function properly, that doesn’t tell us much about their character either.
However, the pandemic has revealed something about a specific type of person: college football coaches. In 2020, it demonstrated their determination to hold a season at almost any cost, despite the obvious (and realized) likelihood that many of those involved would contract COVID. Coaches would have been paid even if the games had been canceled. However, they and many of their players were so dedicated to football as a concept that the season went on regardless. It had been a dreadful year.
Nonetheless, the pandemic demonstrated something encouraging about coaches: their ability to read a card to support public health when needed. The vast majority of them, including some of the highest-paid public employees in entire states, said and did the right things when it came to standard-issue public-health advice. In mid-March 2020, LSU’s Ed Orgeron exhorted the entire state of Louisiana to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds and be cautious. Three months later, Alabama’s Nick Saban was cutting PSAs about masks and social distancing. This year, Georgia’s Kirby Smart repeatedly advised Dawg fans to get vaccinated. These aren’t ground-breaking actions, but it’s encouraging that most coaches recognized their platforms and did their part to set a good example.
There is one notable exception: Nick Rolovich, the head coach fired by Washington State on Monday after a months-long refusal to take the shot. Rolovich was the only head coach among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams (and 32 NFL teams) to admit publicly that he had not received the vaccine. Rolovich had until this week to comply with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate for state employees to receive vaccines. He applied for a religious exemption, which was reviewed blindly and provisionally approved by a committee. However, after consulting with HR and safety officials, Wazzu athletic director Pat Chun determined that Rolovich could not perform his duties without jeopardizing public safety. Chun fired Rolovich for cause, potentially launching a legal battle between the coach and his former school.
Rolovich will become an avatar for personal choice and fighting back against government overreach for a certain type of person. As stupid as his decision to waste a $3 million salary and a Power Five coaching position is, it will appear to some as a matter of principle. But, if such a thing exists, Rolovich isn’t a good standard-bearer for the anti-vaccine movement, and he hasn’t asked to be one.
Rolovich, who was previously a popular coach at Hawaii, will begin his new job at Washington State in January 2020. That summer, college football players joined millions of other Americans in the streets, demanding not only racial justice from their own campus leadership, but also concessions related to pandemic working conditions in some cases. At least five Washington State players agreed to a list of demands made by Pac-12 athletes of their conference and schools.
Some people are unable to receive a COVID vaccine due to medical reasons. Others may be unwilling to take one for spiritual reasons. Non-compliance with the vaccine does not automatically imply a lack of concern for others. But, even if Rolovich had a valid reason, he never defended it. He never claimed a medical exemption, and he never elaborated on his reasoning in public. When he became a sideshow at the Pac-12’s preseason media days by showing up virtually as the league’s only unvaccinated head coach, he stressed that it was his decision and said he wouldn’t comment further. He was tenacious in carrying it out. A reporter practically begged Rolovich to explain himself at a press conference in September, but he refused.