When my family lived in Seattle, friends of ours who happened to be University of Washington Huskies football fans, would greet the annual promising start of rivals Washington State Cougars with the same derision every year: they forecast it would all end in tears in Wazzu (Washington State’s nickname).
This season, 18 months into the Nick Rolovich head coaching regime, events have followed the time honored script. Rolovich, who took over right before the pandemic hit, did not believe in the COVID vaccine. When the state of Washington mandated vaccines for all state employees and Rolovich refused to comply, the Cougars terminated his contract. Rolovich is now suing his former employer. Like Aaron Rodgers, his more high profile NFL partner in aberration, I’ll examine what the cases of Rolovich and Rodgers tell us about how rife misinformation about the COVID vaccine extends in football.
Contrarians on the High Road
The strange cases of Rodgers and Rolovich have more in common than initially meets the eye. First, both acted with flagrant disregard for their teams. Rodgers willfully misled the media about his vaccination status. He used anti-vaccination rhetoric as his reasoning to not get vaccinated. A contrarian, he is no stranger to controversy. When asked if he was vaccinated, he said he was “immunized.” The reigning MVP and one of the most household names in U.S. sport was using his platform to peddle misinformation. For all his brilliance as a football player, Aaron Rodgers is an odd fish. In his weekly interview on the Pat McAfee Show, Rodgers fueled the controversy further by trying to distance himself from conspiracy theorists. “I’m not, you know, some sort of anti-vax, flat-earther,” he said. “I am somebody who’s a critical thinker.” Basketball icon Kareem Abdul-Jabbar put the boot into Rodgers. “Rodgers didn’t just lie, he also damaged professional sports,” he wrote. At last week’s press conference, he blamed media misinformation for having to address his toe injury, which some were calling ‘COVID toe.’ In the process, he directed his ire at The Wall Street Journal who had run this story, and he wrongly attributed the article to a writer Mollie Knight, who does not write for the Journal. The move was redolent of something Donald Trump has done. Knight was predictably on the receiving end of social media vitriol as a result of Rodgers misdirection The next time you see Rodgers in one of his wholesome, tedious All State TV adverts, feel free to be offended. Nick Rolovich requested an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine based on his Catholic faith, which he stressed was devout. Four of his assistant coaches followed him out the door as they shared similar beliefs. This flies in the face of what Pope Francis decrees - namely that getting vaccinated is “an act of love.” Rolovich put the livelihoods of those on his staff and football aspirations of the young men he coached on a bonfire. He played a cat-and-mouse game regarding his vaccination status that led a team capable of winning the Pac-12 North division to be overrun by distraction.
When the inevitable day came, his long walk to contract termination featured a final twist: Rolovich announced he was suing the university for illegal termination. A protracted fight is under way in Washington state. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office is disputing several allegations presented in Rolovich’s appeal of his firing, including the notion that Inslee enacted the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate “to force Coach Rolovich’s hand” in light of the former coach’s objections to the vaccine. It’s a far cry from when the state's former best paid employee on a $3 million annual contract, took over coaching the Cougars back in January 2020.
Legendary former Wazzu quarterback, Jack Thompson, who was instrumental in bringing Rolovich to Pullman and was friendly with him, summed up his feelings after the termination. “You asked me if I’m mad. I’m mad at the ramifications of what his choice had on my school, on the football team. I’m mad about that,” Thompson said.
Power Without Responsibility
Aaron Rodgers and Nick Rolovich firmly established themselves as part of the post-truth narrative gripping America. Rolovich should never get a head coaching gig again, although he might surface as an assistant somewhere in a few years time. The character question marks that beset Rodgers seem destined to live on, even when he walks off into the sunset anointed as one of the greatest players ever to have played the game. Both treated the consummate team game with contempt, and cherry-picked which rules they complied with. That is behavior that leaves a bad taste in the mouth and has a funny way of catching up with you.