BALTIMORE -- 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.
Within the first 10 days of its pandemic-abbreviated season, MLB faced virus outbreaks on multiple teams, resulting in schedule improvisations that halted play for other clubs, including the Orioles, and rounds of public blaming between players and Commissioner Rob Manfred.
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.