With his steadfast refusal to be vaccinated despite being given every opportunity to change his mind and just get jabbed, former Washington State University head coach Nick Rolovich cost himself a job with a $3 million annual salary. And while many are likely happy that they can stop thinking about Rolovich now (at least until he gets hired by, like, Liberty), his parting with WSU still raises a bouquet of baffling questions: How does a grown man so stubbornly avoid taking a small action that would save lives? How does he continue to do so even when staggering amounts of money are at stake, and his own livelihood will be directly harmed? How does this even become any kind of conundrum in the first place?
ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura attempted to answer a few of those in a feature released today about Rolovich’s ousting from WSU in the aftermath of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s mandate that all university employees be vaccinated. Without clarity from Rolovich himself, the report is still ultimately left throwing up its hands at his sheer hardheadedness. But there are still some noteworthy tidbits that emphasize how doomed WSU’s football program appeared to be from the moment the mandate came down. The one that stands out most was from back in April, when WSU’s leadership saw the path they were on and tried to change Rolovich’s mind. They set up a meeting with Dr. Guy Palmer, a professor of pathology and infectious diseases at the school, and it went like this:
Over about an hour, Rolovich drove a conversation that focused on topics that were consistent with what Palmer said has been shared by the “anti-vax crowd on social media” over the past several years.
“Kind of typical ones: Is Bill Gates involved with the vaccines? Does [Gates] hold a patent on the vaccines?” Palmer recalled to ESPN. “He asked whether SV40 is in the vaccines and whether that could be a dangerous thing. And the answer to that is no.”
SV40, also known as the simian virus 40, was found to have contaminated polio vaccines in the late 1950s and early 1960s. However, multiple studies — including one from the Institute of Medicine Immunization Safety Review Committee in 2002 — have not found a link between that contamination and any harmful impacts. No vaccines currently contain SV40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it’s unclear where Rolovich would have gotten the idea it was present in COVID vaccines.
(In a text message exchange with ESPN Tuesday evening, Rolovich described it as a “nice discussion with Dr Palmer” but declined to elaborate or be interviewed further.)
In terms of Rolovich’s immediate future, the most relevant part of all this nonsense is how it seems to contradict the closest thing to a specific reason for not taking the vaccine he has given. After Rolovich’s firing, his attorney stated that “Coach Rolovich has been derided, demonized, and ultimately fired from his job, merely for being devout in his Catholic faith.” That’s already a difficult sell because of the Pope’s endorsement of vaccines, and while some other Catholics have used a hard-line stance against abortion as justification for vaccine hesitancy, it’s very difficult to square the flailing gibberish Palmer here describes with any kind of sincere religious belief. (One wonders if Rolovich has similar ethical objections to Advil or Tums or any number of everyday medications that also used fetal cell lines in their development.) If the conversation indeed happened as it’s relayed, it reads instead like a scared, stupid man desperate for a way to justify a decision he can’t or won’t elucidate, and keep his job.
But even if you don’t give a shit about Rolovich himself—and I don’t blame you if you don’t—it’s frustratingly evident that he is not alone in grasping at vaccine conspiracies. And that’s where the larger issue inherent in this reported discussion becomes evident. A 42-year-old man doesn’t just imagine a phony idea as obscure as SV40 contamination out of thin air. He gets it, more than likely, from a popular source of vaccine disinformation: Fox News, Facebook, Twitter, and the like.
A very credible sequence of events is that Nick Rolovich has a fear of needles, or doesn’t like going to the doctor, has anxiety about medicine, or simply feels a pathological need to rebel against scientific consensus. On the internet in 2021, it’s easier than ever to confirm whatever you want to believe, and to come up with some pseudoscientific justification for it. So once Rolovich saw something that told him he was right, he latched onto it and wouldn’t let go. From there, his refusal to take a vaccine became a part of his identity so powerful that not even millions of dollars, a coveted job, and the survival of his public reputation could shake it. Now, he’s left unemployed, humiliated, and struggling to wring some parachute money out of WSU.
That’s an odd little tragic tale in and of itself, but it becomes a horror story when multiplied by the many millions of Americans who are eligible for the vaccine but have so far declined to get it. Now, there are a variety of explanations for why a given person hasn’t been jabbed, some of which represent shortcomings on the part of the state and not the individual. But plenty of the unvaccinated are like Rolovich—privileged, comfortable, and simply unwilling to get over an irrational fear or admit a miscalculation. And while it’s tempting to blame each and every one of these folks for their failures in judgement, there’s an addictive media machine just saturated with crackpot ideas swaying them in the wrong direction. Those pushing the ideas didn’t create this fear from scratch. But they’re sure as hell profiting off of it.