The red shirts are omnipresent at Ravens training camp.
In the parking lot, they stand and wave drivers to the proper parking areas and scold those who don’t follow orders. At the field entrances, they ensure spectators aren’t bringing in anything illegal.
During practice, they are positioned at precise points around the Ravens facility like correctional officers surveying a prison yard. They stroll the sidelines staring into the souls of young children and other fans who dare grab a cellphone from their pockets while practice is happening.
“What do you want me to do? Shove it in my [expletive]?” One fan exclaimed after being told to put her phone away.
The people sporting these red shirts – and their supervisors clad in blue ones – work for S.A.F.E., a security company that the Ravens contract for events. For the first four weeks of training camp, which were open to fans, these staffers served as the first line of defense for the Ravens’ closest trade secrets – otherwise known as the team’s strategies and players they don’t want opponents to know about. (Beginning this week practices are closed to fans, but the red shirts can be found at M&T Bank Stadium on Sundays and working other major events around the city.)
In a league in which teams tirelessly look for any advantage – which causes organizational paranoia across the NFL – these red-shirted staffers’ highest order at training camp is simple: keep phones away at practice.
“If anything’s out there – I’m sure that this was livestreamed – so I’m sure that other teams will have those plays that they see and all that,” coach John Harbaugh said last week after the Ravens’ second joint practice with the Washington Commanders, which streamed on the team’s website. “They’ll look at that, just like scouts will look at the players on it, just like they would in a game. We do the same thing with other practices.”
He later added, “Coaches, we’re obviously more concerned with the information, but I also feel like it’s worth the work. It’s worth getting out here and going against another team and getting to work. We’re pretty conscientious about what we allow, what we call and what we run.”
The Ravens, like many NFL teams, invite fans for free to the first few weeks of training camp before they begin preparing for their first regular-season opponent.
Still, as Harbaugh hinted in his response about joint practices, having fans, or anyone who isn’t a player, goes against what most coaches want. For teams, and specifically the marketing department, it’s an opportunity for fans who might not be able to afford game tickets to see the team for free, to get photos of quarterback Lamar Jackson playing catch with young fans or to get pictures of players’ signing autographs on the sideline. (Translation: good PR for the Ravens.)
So the compromise is the persistent, paranoia-fueled cellphone law. The Ravens, however, are not making people leave their phones at home or in their cars. Those who need to take a selfie, check an email or make a call can go behind the bleachers, where they are free from the surveying red army. Signs posted throughout the facility remind spectators of this rule, but there are regular violators. Most of them try to barter with the red shirts for an exception so they don’t have to walk to the phone-safe areas.
The negotiating never works, and fans become frustrated with how aggressively the policy is enforced. Still, Allison Streator, 42, who has been working at S.A.F.E. for the past year, doesn’t lose any sleep over disgruntled spectators.
“My thing is, if you’re coming to see your team practice, why would you want to come to record it and post it?” Streator said. “Then it becomes an issue when they are playing games.”
Media are the only spectators not employed by the Ravens who are permitted to have their cellphones, but they cannot record practices outside of warmups and drills. When media report practice updates, say wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has a one-handed catch or cornerback Marlon Humphrey snags an interception, they are required to go to a phone-safe area behind the bleachers with their backs turned to the field. If a player is injured during practice, the media cannot report that until practice ends.
The rules for reporters aren’t uniform around the NFL. You may see a video of Falcons running back Bijan Robinson making his team’s defenders look foolish in one-on-one drills from Atlanta, but recording those drills isn’t permitted in Baltimore. In Dallas, reporters can catch a video of cornerback Trevon Diggs trash-talking quarterback Dak Prescott in 11-on-11 play, but at Ravens’ practice recording those sessions isn’t allowed. So reporters take copious notes and report detailed observations but must withhold game strategy-specific notes, such as trick plays or formations.
“There are things like gadget plays, you know, double passes, you don’t want the opposition to know,” former Raiders general manager Mike Mayock said in a recent interview. “I think if you have a new coaching staff, a new coordinator, you’re trying to keep things under wraps because you could be doing a combination of different things.
“So there are things like that where I think the paranoia is legitimate,” he continued. “You don’t want anybody outside you and the team to know what you’re doing.”
Organizations have ample reason to be paranoid. In 2007, the NFL handed down record-breaking fines and stripped the New England Patriots of a first-round pick after they recorded New York Jets defensive signals from unauthorized locations during games. The scandal became known as Spygate. (The Patriots faced penalties for another spying incident in 2020.) Last year, someone filmed the Miami Dolphins’ practice before a game against the Cincinnati Bengals and posted it to social media. The Dolphins caught wind of it beforehand, and all the plays they ran on camera were illegal, with 12 players.
Former Jets general manager John Idzik Jr. said in a recent interview that, at this point in training camp, teams are most focused on snatching underrated players another team may cut. For the Ravens, that might be a player like running back Keaton Mitchell. But Idzik said for a team such as the Ravens, with a new offensive coordinator, he would have people watching closely to see how the offense has changed.
“Some clubs may have someone locally there, like a scout or something, if the practice is open to the public,” Idzik said. “The only way you get a real gauge as to who’s doing well is to watch their film and, if they have an open practice, go to the practice, go to the joint practice and get as much information on players that way but not as much scheme-wise.”
Now that fans are gone from practice, the Ravens will begin preparing earnestly for their Week 1 opponent, the Houston Texans. As the regular season begins, viewing rules will change for reporters, too. They will be permitted to watch only a small portion of practice, when players essentially stretch and go through drills.
“I think it’s just important to recognize, there are different levels of paranoia, and some of it is legitimate,” Mayock said. “To be really honest with you, like 95 percent of what you do on offense and defense, for the most part, a fan or beat reporter is not going to get anything out of it.”
He continued: “Coaches are most paranoid during the regular season, playoffs and game week. Training camp is kind of a different animal. But I think coaches, in general, are paranoid. And I understand a lot of it.”
On the Ravens’ first day of training camp, the day’s highlight came on a deep pass from Jackson to Beckham.
Beckham made a juke move while the ball was in the air, confusing cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. Beckham snagged the ball as the fans who came to see him roared. Later, a video of the play recorded by a spectator went viral on social media.
Days later, the red shirts wielded signs that read “No Cellphone Usage During Practice.”