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College Football

Nick Rolovich Is Marching Towards The Abyss

Washington State coach Nick Rolovich, simultaneously wearing and not wearing a mask in a 2020 loss to Utah.
Chris Gardner/Getty Images

On Sunday, I watched maybe 40 angry people walk down my street in the rain. Most of them were on the sidewalk, and so from my vantage point disappeared under construction scaffolding and then reappeared where it ended. A few others—the one with the Blue Lives Matter flag and the one with the Gadsden flag, the handful of women with megaphones—walked in the street. A half dozen police cars escorted them, lights rolling. A protest that wouldn’t otherwise have significantly congested the sidewalk was therefore able to slow traffic in both eastbound lanes to the speed of this particular distractible crowd. Another half-dozen police officers surrounded the pod, projecting even from a distance the sort of aggrieved and wary boredom that only police officers can.

It was clear what these people were on about; stickers had gone up around the neighborhood decrying Medical Apartheid, and overall it just seemed like we were due. The protests that made their way through these streets in the summer of 2020 had not just a more defined and infinitely more righteous purpose than this much smaller one, but also an identifiable cadence and cohesion and shape. People were there for different reasons, but they were at the very least more or less capable of getting on the same page for a “no justice, no peace” chant because they all more or less believed it. This was not that, and not just because of how discordant and unfocused it was. This furious orchestra consisted entirely of lonely soloists; they were each very much on their own march.

It got clearer once they emerged from under the scaffolding again, much closer now. As expected, those were crude hand-drawn illustrations of syringes on the signs, and the looping letters done in different shades of pastel marker had been enlisted to draw a contrast between God, in whom the sign-holder placed her faith, and Big Pharma, in whom she pointedly did not. And that was it. They just sort of made their unhurried way down the street, yelling what they were moved to yell or just plodding forward with their signs aloft, or held in front of them like wan and soggy riot shields. 

The women with the megaphones carried on separate and seemingly private arguments with interlocutors I could not hear or see. They swung the blunderbuss business ends of the things around like pinned-down infantry frantically responding to enemy fire; thin and tinny messages washed the edifices, but I couldn’t see anyone even acknowledging them. 

It was both effectively impossible to tell what they were even saying and absolutely clear enough. Whatever it was, it hit the buildings as noise, then splashed off and receded. The noisemakers and noise plodded on towards the mayor’s residence, and everyone else just moved around them, and on with the business or leisure of what was or wasn’t their sabbath. 

When the light changed and the pod crossed the avenue, they became indistinct. The police lights bloodied the buildings; the megaphones issued strange and now incomprehensible challenges at closed windows; the surly sum of them crept towards their little march’s end, not so much looking for a fight as casting their inarticulate challenges and collective noise out onto the flat surface of the city in the hope that someone, anyone, might rise to the hook.

It is not quite true that Washington State head football coach Nick Rolovich has been trying to get fired for several months now, but he has been very actively trying to figure out what he can get away with. In July, Rolovich released a terse statement on social media explaining that he had “elected not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for reasons which will remain private” and saying that he would not be discussing that decision—one he took care to say, as such people reliably do, was every individual’s decision to make—any further. Rolovich refused to discuss it at the Pac-12 media days; he was the only one of the 12 coaches and 24 players slated for the event to attend it virtually. He didn’t talk about it there, and he hasn’t talked about it since. Because Rolovich has continued not to get vaccinated—for a while he said he would abide by the state’s mandate for public employees and didn’t, and then he stopped saying even that—people have continued to ask him. If his appeal on religious grounds is denied, he may well lose his job on Monday. 

The most obvious armchair diagnosis here has always been that Rolovich has a terminal case of Football Guy Brain. When Washington State beat Oregon State last year in a game in which his team was without an astonishing 32 players, Rolovich chastised a reporter for asking about whether those absences were related to the pandemic, and signed off on the press conference by testily saying, “No corona.” That particular strain of coachy impatience and pissy refusal to let the pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people Become A Distraction From Winning Ball Games was not uncommon among Rolovich’s cohort at the time. Saying “No corona” on a postgame Zoom call, and doing so in exactly the same tone as a diner patron trying to make clear that he very much does not want onions on his burger, was very obviously insufficient as a response to the pandemic or anything else, but there was also only so much else to say or do at the time. There just were not a lot of responses available, then. 

The problem for Rolovich is that he has insisted on sticking with his non-response despite the presence of better options, and despite that statewide mandate, and despite being beseeched to do so by people that care about the football program he runs and the man himself. June Jones, who coached Rolovich at the University of Hawaii two decades ago and has remained his mentor, told USA Today last week that he’d advised him multiple times to get vaccinated. “There’s too much at stake to risk losing his job,” Jones said. “It may be against what he believes, obviously, but there are more people at stake—the university’s credibility, the lives of the assistant coaches and their families. There’s a whole bunch more at stake than just him, and that’s exactly what I told him.” (Rolovich responded to his mentor’s statements as if they were a great betrayal. “I’m not terribly happy with the way it happened,” he said after the Oregon State win. “I hope there’s no player that I coach that has to wake up and feel the way I felt today.”)

Which is not to say that Rolovich’s job is not very much and very urgently at stake. Being the head coach at Washington State is a job that absolutely can be done by a reactionary eccentric—Mike Leach, who is literally Mike Leach, did it with distinction for eight years. The bigger issue for Rolovich, as he makes whatever stand he believes himself to be making here, is that he has not done the job well enough or long enough to get away with this sort of thing. The Cougars only played four games in 2020 and won just once. His inaugural recruiting class was ninth in the Pac-12 and 60th in the country, per 247Sports. His second barely exists, as Rolovich has just eight hard commits for 2022, per 247Sports, and has gotten just one since announcing in July that he wasn’t going to get vaccinated. 

The Cougars have recently beaten Cal and Oregon State to get to 3-3 on the year, but they have gotten there as weirdly as possible. They gave up 38 unanswered second-half points in a 45-14 loss to USC, the third time in Rolovich’s first five Pac-12 games that the team duffed away a double-digit lead in a game the team wound up losing by multiple touchdowns. In a narrow season-opening loss to Utah State, Rolovich pulled quarterback Jayden de Laura with the Cougars at the two-yard line and had third-stringer Camm Cooper run two plays out of a three-back formation that netted negative-four yards. “The Nick Rolovich era already is over,” Jeff Nusser wrote at Coug Center after that USC loss, in a post that compared Rolovich to the historically overmatched Paul Wulff, whose Washington State teams were outscored 901-1,843 between 2008 and 2011. “However many more games Rolovich coaches is just a mere side note to this reality—before his second season even hits the halfway point, he’s already a dead man walking.” 

That there isn’t any real leverage to find here is something that would matter if Rolovich were approaching it as anything like a rational decision, which he is not. It seems reasonable to assume that a great many other college football coaches share the same grouchily grim view of public health, but all of them were at least serious enough about doing their jobs as football coaches to make sure that they and their staffs and their players were vaccinated, if only to prevent an entirely preventable outbreak from Becoming A Distraction From Winning Ball Games. Rolovich, in contrast, has become the very distraction that coaches are always warning against. “It’s an incredible stress for young people,” Rolovich said of his decision not to get vaccinated. “I think for them to be able to keep their focus and continue to give to each other and to this program has been special.” (“If only someone could relieve that stress,” John Blanchette wrote in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “Who could that possibly be?”)

As Brian Floyd pointed out, the school would very much be within its rights to fire Rolovich for cause even if his request for a religious exemption is granted. His coaching staff, all of whom are on one-year contracts, would likely wind up out of work as well. This, as much as any broader public health concern, seems to have been what moved June Jones to speak out. It is not just that Rolovich is being selfish and irresponsible; a great many college football coaches are like that. He is also being a total dick, and in this instance that is very clearly the more salient issue. “He was a quarterback, kind of his own guy, a leader,” Jones said. “He’s been that way as a coach. He believes that he doesn’t need to take it and doesn’t want to take it, and he doesn’t want somebody telling him what to do.”

If Rolovich were a bigger name or a better coach, this might be a bigger story. If he gets fired, it might yet become one. There is a reflexive media fetish for binaries, which has unhelpfully created the idea that there are two viable sides to the question “Is it good to take collective and individual action against a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans?” And right-wing media, which has been desperate to create the appearance of massive martyrdom campaigns against mandates in the absence of any such thing, is forever looking for victims of this purported overreach so that they might be instrumentalized as part of their ongoing campaign of base-infuriation. That this is never anything but cynical—the dissidents these efforts spin up are always one-and-done players in the Fox News Cinematic Universe; the (vaccinated) politicians and demagogues propping and pumping up this sham resistance quite obviously value those refusing as nothing more than culture war cannon fodder and plainly regard them utterly disposable rubes—doesn’t make it much less believable to those inclined to believe it. 

To see it for what it is would, for those enlisted in the movement, require that these people see themselves as not just something other than the heroic main characters of reality, but as part of a world in which other people live lives that are not just meaningful but real. The rest of this worldview simply would not and simply could not endure that; the cruelty and heedlessness upon which it is built could not survive that realization and still be justifiable. There’s just no giving it up.

This is all rather shockingly nihilistic even by the standards of a shameful broader moment—not just the end of the road but the abyss into which that broken pavement tips. Every day a thousand lonely, angry people are righteously flooring it into oblivion on a sour and selfish principle that cannot and anyway feels no obligation to explain itself. It is true that this, like Kyrie Irving’s deeply felt and entirely opaque martyrdom mission, reflects a choice. It is also true that, in a culture that fetishizes choice at the same time that it has removed anything like meaningful agency from virtually every aspect of daily life, and that has nurtured a wild and endless sense of constant competition just through allowing the structural degradations of the free market to supplant any more potentially ennobling experience of public life, the very idea of doing something for the benefit of anyone else almost scans as an insult.

“A reluctant embrace of responsibility still counts,” the Seattle Times editorialized, correctly, last month. But it seems clear at this point that even that is more than Rolovich is willing to do. The choice that he has to make is in fact extremely easy. It would benefit other people and also himself in many obvious ways, and would inconvenience and harm Rolovich not at all, or not beyond enduring the humiliation of acknowledging that his own interests are broadly aligned with the rest of humanity. If he chooses to go on alone, though, he will still have company. There is always some march heading in the other direction, wailing and signifying and doing their utmost to get in the way of everyone else because they honestly, tragically, cannot think of anything better to do.

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