Much to Washington State’s chagrin, their Nick Rolovich troubles aren’t over yet (and that doesn’t even count his 5-6 record with the Cougars). After Rolovich received several warnings from the Washington State University administration and athletic department that he would be removed as head coach if he didn’t get vaccinated, he… still didn’t get vaccinated. And, as warned, got fired, along with four assistant coaches who also refused to get the vaccine.
Rolovich, who took over in early 2020 as the head coach of Wazzu after Mike Leach left for Mississippi State, apparently never wants a Division I head coaching job again. He’s now decided to take legal action against the university and the athletic department in what appears to be a claim of religious discrimination, at least in part. Rolovich’s attorney, Brian Fahling, released a statement Wednesday morning alleging “unjust and unlawful” termination.
Fahling’s statement takes aim at WSU athletic director Pat Chun, reading “Chun’s animus towards Coach Rolovich’s sincerely held religious beliefs, and Chun’s dishonesty at the expense of Coach Rolovich during the past year is damning and will be thoroughly detailed in litigation.”
Here’s where this gets a bit sticky: Rolovich is Catholic. Aside from the fact that we’re not living in 1970s Ireland right now — and that the United States is currently being led by a practicing Catholic — Pope Francis very explicitly encouraged American Catholics to get the vaccine if it was available to them, calling it in an August video an “act of love.” So while exemptions are being granted to certain groups of people, Catholic petitioners may not be left with much legal ground to stand on – which Rolovich and Fahling seem to at least somewhat realize, instead pivoting to claims that Chun has been exhibiting “discriminatory and vindictive behavior” for months in response to Rolovich’s religious beliefs.
Fahling’s statement alleges that Chun had been planning to fire Rolovich since April of this year and goes so far as to say that “it is a tragic and damning commentary on our culture… that Coach Rolovich has been derided, demonized, and ultimately fired from his job, merely for being devout in his Catholic faith.” The press release heavily implies that Chun is anti-Catholic and that he had been plotting to fire Rolovich for months because he is Catholic.
It’s a bizarre claim, to say the least, made more bizarre by the fact that the WSU athletic department says that they made it very clear for months in advance of the firing that Rolovich would need to be vaccinated. This didn’t come out of nowhere. Chun said in a press conference on Monday that Rolovich had been warned of the possible consequences months in advance. Perhaps that is the months-long plot that Fahling refers to — again, not really an anti-Catholic scheme.
Another complication in this firing matter is that employees at Washington State University are, as stated in the school’s name, state employees. Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued a mandate that all state employees were required to be vaccinated or leave their posts by Monday, October 18. While exemptions are available under that mandate, the WSU administration had already issued a statement to students saying that anyone who wished to participate in on-campus life in the 2021-2022 was required to get the COVID vaccine. This mandate extended to its employees — again, with exemptions available to those who qualified. Over 90 percent of students and employees are vaccinated at WSU.
Throughout preseason — and pre-firing — press conferences, Rolovich never publicly stated his reasoning for refusing to get vaccinated. In a Monday press conference after the termination, AD Chun said that Rolovich had filed for a religious exemption from the state mandate that was denied.
“He was resolute in his stance and his right to make a choice,” Chun said at the Monday press conference. “That choice did not put him in compliance with this proclamation from the governor, and that is why we sit here today.”
Rolovich infamously had to walk back his comments shortly before the 2020 season when Cougars wide receiver Kassidy Woods reported that the coach had told him that his alignment with a group of Pac-12 athletes called #WeAreUnited, who were seeking “fair treatment for college athletes,” would jeopardize Woods’ spot on the roster. The group’s goals included better COVID safety protocols, racial equality, and name, image, and likeness rights, among other demands. Rolovich later released a statement of support for WSU players who were part of the #WeAreUnited group.
Whether Rolovich will have any legal success in his illegal termination claim remains to be seen. I’m sure this is only one of countless vaccine mandate lawsuits that will be floating around for years to come as litigation on the matter adjusts and readjusts — although the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission does say that vaccine mandates are not prohibited under federal anti-discrimination laws. If we’re being honest, this looks like a convoluted last-ditch money grab more than anything, but a lot remains to be seen. It looks like Rolovich is just getting started.