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NFL face mask violations (and related pandemic indiscretions) deserve more than a flag | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Baltimore. The All-Pro quarterback will not be available to play this week against the Steelers in Pittsburgh after testing positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) in action during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Baltimore. The All-Pro quarterback will not be available to play this week against the Steelers in Pittsburgh after testing positive for the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Nick Wass) (Nick Wass/AP)

If all goes as planned, the Baltimore Ravens will play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday, after multiple delays, in a much anticipated divisional matchup with potential National Football League playoff implications. Also of note: One of those teams has no fewer than 23 players unavailable to play because they have tested positive for the coronavirus. You read that correctly — one team’s 53-man roster has been reduced by more than one-third. Unfortunately, for Charm City sports enthusiasts, that team would be the Baltimore Ravens. To suggest the Ravens are in a bad situation does not even acknowledge that the lost 23 includes star quarterback Lamar Jackson, last season’s Most Valuable Player. Oh, and did anyone mention the host Steelers are undefeated at this point? Perhaps the one consolation is that the Steelers have at least four players on COVID-19 reserve, too.

We won’t predict the outcome of this thrice-postponed game that was originally supposed to be played Thanksgiving Day, that’s a job for sports writers. We can predict this: More positive tests to come. The National Football League has buttoned up the virus in much the same way that Napoleon Bonaparte had a really good read on invading Russia. Last summer, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced some pretty elaborate policies and protocols to prevent COVID-19 from spreading across the league. This week, its flaws and what might best be described as shoddy enforcement became clear. The worst of the Ravens outbreak appears traceable to one person, the team’s strength and conditioning coach who allegedly failed to report his own coronavirus symptoms or consistently wear a mask. We would lambaste the already disciplined trainer, but Ravens fans have expressed enough vitriol on social media already and it’s not as if his casual approach to the coronavirus was exactly a novelty among pro football franchises.

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Has anyone watched an NFL game? From the start, it’s been clear that players and coaches perceived coronavirus restrictions as optional in much the same way that entitled motorists look at parking meters or residential speed limits. Sure, even the most selfish among us will follow the rules much of the time but when pro football players have more pressing issues on their minds? Say, when it’s time to shake hands postgame or yell at the referees or hug a teammate? Well, maybe not so much. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh got into trouble earlier this season when he lowered his neck gaiter to yell at a referee in week No. 3 over a tripping call. It took a complaint from the referees’ union to get him in trouble. That was an early sign how serious the Ravens were (or weren’t) about mask protocols.

That’s not to single out the Ravens. We’re seeing similarly lax behavior breaking out all over the place. The NFL’s Denver Broncos played their game last weekend without a quarterback, a position generally regarded as fairly essential. The team seriously considered starting an assistant coach at the position, but the idea was nixed by the league’s front office, ESPN has reported. At last count, at least half of the league’s 32 teams had at least one player out with COVID-19. Given the likelihood that the Thanksgiving holiday, with its travel and family meals, is going to worsen already bad national pandemic numbers, the Ravens and Broncos may soon have company in the ranks of the truly decimated football teams. College football has already canceled or postponed at least 107 games as of the most recent tally.

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The athletes aren’t personally in the high-risk category, of course. Many of those who have tested positive have reported mild symptoms. The possibility of serious health issues can’t be entirely dismissed, but the typical football player surely faces greater personal peril on the field, where a degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy has been linked to repetitive hits to the head, than they do from COVID-19. But what about their families? Their neighbors? Their communities? What about the football fans who get the message that coronavirus precautions like wearing a mask are not what tough guys do? Whether the Ravens make the playoffs or not this season, the team has already let us down by not setting the right example internally, to the league, to the community and to TV viewers. That’s not the fault of one staff member, that’s the fault of a wrongheaded mentality that the team and the league allowed to fester. And it must not be allowed to continue.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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