Tim Rutherford has not missed a Ravens home game since the team came to Baltimore in 1996.
During a run that’s included two Super Bowl victories, the retired WMAR-TV news photographer has rarely looked forward to a season more than the one ahead. But Rutherford says this knowing he might never lay eyes on the 2020 Ravens because of a pandemic that could halt the NFL season or at least keep fans out of the stands.
“Will I see games this year? Who knows?” the 65-year-old Owings Mills resident said. “I’m pessimistic they will have a full season. I’m just worried that the best Ravens team I have ever seen on paper may end up being some asterisk-laden footnote in this weird year.”
A fall without professional football would be a gloomy prospect for millions of Americans, who love the sport like no other. But it would leave a particularly gaping hole in the heart of Baltimore, where the Ravens are regarded as a leading Super Bowl contender behind reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson.
For now, the Ravens are determined to play on under pandemic protocols established by the NFL and its players association. Players have praised the precautions enforced at the team’s training facility and vowed to avoid risks away from work. They’re even wearing T-shirts that read “Stay Positive Test Negative.” But they acknowledge the uncertain road ahead, and fans such as Rutherford have begun tempering their expectations as they watch the Orioles stumble through the chaos of Major League Baseball’s delayed opening.
Baseball’s travails have intensified questions about how the NFL can pull off an uninterrupted 2020 season. Like MLB, the league is attempting to move forward without creating a quarantined bubble, as the NBA, the NHL and Major League Soccer did for their restarts. Not to mention, professional football requires more than twice as many players, coaches and support staffers as baseball (in excess of 5,000 total) and pushes its players into close proximity throughout practices and games.
Less than two weeks after veterans reported for training camp, the NFL is already experiencing tremors from the virus, with prominent players — including former Ravens standouts C.J. Mosley and Michael Pierce — opting out of the season because of health concerns and other stars such as Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford placed on the COVID-19/inactive list. (Stafford’s test was ultimately deemed a false positive.)
Given these realities and the prevalence of COVID-19 in communities around the country, infectious disease experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have expressed skepticism that the NFL can pull off a season.
In June, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said “it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall” without a bubble or multiple bubbles in NFL cities around the country. Infection rates have risen nationally since he made that proclamation.
“It turns out to be a numbers game. If you have 2 to 3% of the population infected at any one time, and then you bring together the hundreds of people needed for a football game, you’re going to have several people in that group likely to be infected,” said Dr. Larry Chang, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “I think the experience of baseball just reflects what’s happening in our communities, which is that there is a very high amount of community-wide transmission. So if this level of transmission isn’t dramatically decreased, I’m pretty skeptical that there’s going to be an uninterrupted football season.”
Ravens president Dick Cass, who has coordinated the team’s pandemic response, said that despite such concerns, a bubble would have been nearly impossible for the NFL given its numbers and the six-month duration of a full season.
“Obviously, it’s not as good as a bubble,” he said. “But when you think about 32 teams and trying to play all your games in a few areas, I don’t think it was practical.”
NFL teams are testing players and staff members daily, with those who test positive and display symptoms required to sit out for at least 10 days. Players and staff members are also wearing tracking devices that will allow teams to isolate those who’ve come into close contact with an infected person. At the Ravens’ training complex in Owings Mills, glass partitions separate lockers, players wear masks everywhere except on the field and meals are consumed one person to a table in the team cafeteria.
But those measures won’t prevent anyone from contracting the virus away from team facilities.
“Can we on the staff and can our players take care of ourselves when we leave the building?” Cass said when asked to name his greatest source of anxiety. “We’re going to have to change what we normally like to do. … It’s really going to change people’s conduct, and if it doesn’t, we’re likely to have an outbreak.”
A player or coach who tests negative on Friday could still conceivably enter a Sunday game with the virus and spread it to teammates and opponents. What would happen if a team saw an entire position group sidelined by COVID-19? Or if an irreplaceable player such as Jackson contracted the virus shortly before a playoff game? Questions like these have already scrambled the baseball season.
“Yes, you’re seeing this stuff,” Ravens running back Mark Ingram II said when asked if MLB’s difficulties have increased his anxiety. “There are cases, but you just try to stay positive. We try to stay with the protocols that our team has set for us in the facility. When you leave the facility, just try to be as safe as possible. Stay at home and taking on the necessary precautions to make sure that you’re not exposing yourself unnecessarily to anything. … We’re trying to stay positive and stay hopeful.”
It was hard to miss the uneasiness in linebacker Matthew Judon’s words as he prepared for the start of camp. “I really don’t know. We don’t know,” he said. “There’s so much unknown and so much uncertainty that’s going on right now. We’ve really got to try, got to jump in and see how it goes. But I don’t want anybody to get sick of this or anybody to take this back to their home. So it’s kind of crazy, but we’re going to try.”
Cass said it’s too early to draw specific lessons from baseball’s experiences, but he said the NFL would benefit from the relatively tight travel windows required for once-a-week play. Nonetheless, he won’t be surprised if the league faces outbreaks and schedule interruptions.
“They’re still playing games. They’re being flexible,” he said of MLB. “We will probably see some of that as well. We have to be flexible, and we have to be willing to adjust.”
The Ravens have not ruled out playing in front of fans at M&T Bank Stadium. Last month, the team announced it would defer all 2020 season tickets to 2021 but might admit socially distanced crowds of 14,000 or fewer if permitted by state and city regulations.
Cass said the team has a plan for admitting fans that he believes would be safe, “but we are not going to push the envelope on this at all. You wouldn’t even want to do that in a situation where the numbers aren’t in a good position and aren’t trending in a good way.”
A spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the mayor supports the Maryland Department of Health’s current ban on spectators at sporting events. A spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Even if the team receives clearance from elected leaders, decisions about whether to open the gates would have to be made weekly based on the state of the pandemic.
Live attendance is an enticing possibility for some Ravens fans and a non-starter for others.
“I would absolutely go to games if allowed,” said Rutherford, who would trust the Ravens to make their home stadium as safe as possible. “They are acknowledged Super Bowl contenders this year. I want a piece of that. That’s why you go to games. The raw emotion in the moment. Geez, I’d hate to lose that and watch a TV team go to the big dance. I’m begging to go to games.”
Nick Bondura isn’t so sure, though the 26-year-old Ocean City resident said attending a game in the year of COVID-19 might go down as a fun novelty.
“Probably not,” he said when asked if he’d go this year. “Considering how much the at-home experience has improved, how much they’ll push innovation there this year anyway and how much the in-stadium experience will likely suffer for a variety of reasons, it just doesn’t seem completely worth it.”
Bondura’s misgivings extend to the NFL season in general.
“To be honest, I’m pessimistic to the point of feeling conflicted on what a [Super Bowl] win would feel like,” the longtime Ravens fan said. “Besides the near-impossibility of uninterruption without a bubble, it seems teams are already altering course due to opt-outs.”
Chang, the Hopkins physician, is a Ravens fan who sees real social value in the resumption of professional sports. But he doesn’t want more people — players and coaches included — to become seriously ill because of an inessential activity.
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“I think it’s all about what’s happening in the community. How much coronavirus is happening in the community?” he said. “The fact is that bringing fans into stadiums, even at reduced capacity, will inevitably increase the risks of transmission. I think we’ve seen with other leagues that you can do it without fans. It might not be ideal, but as long as we have this really high level of community transmission, I don’t think it would be responsible to have fans in the stadium.”