Covid-19 has created substantial change in the lives of everyone, but it has had a tremendous impact on the college sports world. Collegiate athletes had seasons cancelled, were required to get the vaccine to step back on their college campuses, and were strongarmed by college universities to comply with the Covid vaccine mandate. Not only has this affected athletes, but it has spilled over to coaches and everyone involved within collegiate athletic programs.
A recent example of this was the termination of Nick Rolovich, the head coach of the Washington State football team, and four other assistant coaches. Governor Jay Inslee set a deadline of Monday, October 18 for employees to either receive the vaccination or receive an exemption and accommodations from their supervisors. Pat Chun, the Athletic Director of Washington State University (WSU), fired Rolovich on October 18 and stated that it was a for-cause separation, reasoning he could not fulfill the requirements of his contract.
Rolovich requested an exemption based on his “devout” Catholic faith, and was denied by the university. Athletic director Chun and President Kirk Schulz of WSU refused to confirm whether or not the coach’s exemption request was denied, but stated “Rolovich’s request for accommodation could not be met.” The university had a system for exemption requests where a two-person panel evaluated anonymous exemption requests and ruled on them with no knowledge of the person’s name or job title.
Rolovich’s attorney, Brian Fahling, has accused Chun of pre-determining Rolovich’s termination as early as April, which was four months prior to Governor Inslee’s vaccine mandate went into effect. Fahling was quoted saying “Chun’s discriminatory and vindictive behavior has caused immeasurable harm to Coach Rolovich and his family,” and “It is a tragic and damning commentary on our culture, and more specifically, on Chun, that Coach Rolovich has been derided, demonized and ultimately fired from his job, merely for being devout in his Catholic faith.”
The university and its athletic department has a duty to keep a positive public image and follow state regulations. Chun responded to Fahling’s comments by saying “We’ve had conversations that date back months. He was resolute in his stance and his right to make a choice. That choice did not put him in compliance with the Governor’s mandate, and that is why we sit here today.” Washington State was allegedly deceitful toward Rolovich, when Chun had Rolovich attend a “secret trip” in July 2020 prior to the Covid-19 vaccination being publicly available, and Chun and others at the event contracted Covid-19, while Rolovich did not. Rolovich was also escorted to his car by university police officers, and forbidden from addressing his team following his termination.
From a purely legal standpoint, it is difficult to see how Fahling’s argument will prevail. Washington State University is a state institution that made a decision based upon a state mandate. Also, section 1.2.1 of Rolovich’s contract shows he must comply with university policy by stating, “Employee agrees to devote employee’s best efforts to the performance of their duties for the University, and to comply with and support all rules, regulations, policies, and decisions established or issued by the University.”
Another reason it is difficult to see Rolovich prevailing in this suit is that the Supreme Court seems to have settled the legality of vaccine mandates over 100 years ago in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. Justice Harlan concluded, “real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.” This decision recognizes that it is a fundamental principle that persons and property are subjected to all kinds of restraints and burdens, in order to secure the general comfort, health, and prosperity of the State.
Chun seems to have acted in the best general interest of WSU and followed the State mandate that he was required to abide by just like every other state employee. It is certainly a quandary when a person’s personal beliefs are being challenged by Covid-19 vaccination mandates, but in order to be a team player, people have to make sacrifices. This relates not only to sports, but to the greater good of any organization. Rolovich’s employment contract makes it clear he was to follow any policy established by WSU (and since WSU is a state university that includes state mandates), and he was terminated since he failed to comply.
 Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 28.
 Id at 29