When Brandon Etheridge drives to work, he crosses the route his school bus used to take. He recalls pressing his face to the small, rectangular window, hoping to spot a running back or a middle linebacker. This was around the time when the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens had just moved to town, and in poor weather, the team would practice at Etheridge’s school. For any sixth grader, it was a dream come true. Years later, Etheridge is living another dream with the same franchise.
In 2016, at age thirty-one, Etheridge became the first general counsel for his hometown football team. And if thirty-one seems like a young age for a top NFL legal officer, that’s because it is. But Etheridge’s pedigree, résumé, and background made him impossible for team president and former private practice law partner Dick Cass to overlook. Cass wanted an in-house lawyer to handle employment matters, legal affairs, sponsorship deals, and negations that often fell to him. And he wanted someone with both sports and NFL experience. In Etheridge, Cass found the perfect candidate.
The Baltimore native played defense for Yale’s football squad. During his time in New Haven, Connecticut, Etheridge once sacked Harvard quarterback and future NFL starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. But an unfortunate injury before his senior year prematurely ended Etheridge’s collegiate football career.
With his professional football aspirations on hold, Etheridge—a political science major—turned his attention to his academic journey. Curiosity about criminal justice led him to apply for and win an internship at the US Attorney General’s office. Later, Etheridge took courses in constitutional law and civil rights law. Those classes confirmed his growing interest in legal affairs. He took the LSAT, was admitted to Harvard Law School, and started his journey to become a lawyer in 2008.
At Harvard, Etheridge’s passion for the law grew, but he still found himself drawn to the sports world. “I woke up watching ESPN and spent the evenings checking box scores,” Etheridge recalls. “I started to wonder if there was a way to unite what had become my two main interests.” Soon, an announcement caught his eye. A sports lawyer was offering a course at Harvard. Etheridge enrolled and never looked back.
When it came time to land his first major role, Etheridge had two main goals: he wanted to work at a firm with a large presence in the sports industry, and he wanted to stay close to home. That led him to Covington & Burling, which counted the NFL among its clients. Etheridge scooped up as much sports work as he could, but he soon discovered that other associates shared his NFL dreams. It was competitive, and Etheridge was forced to bide his time. Then, an opportunity presented itself when a leading sports practice partner asked for Etheridge’s input on a legal matter for the Ultimate Fighting Championship organization. As he won the favor and confidence of Covington & Burling’s leaders, Etheridge gained more responsibilities.
From there, Etheridge was involved in every NFL litigation that Covington & Burling handled. Those matters included arbitration disputes between players and teams, which gave Etheridge exposure to every lawyer in the football league’s labor department. In 2014, he received a call to interview at the NFL, and in August of that year, he accepted a job as an assistant labor relations council.
As a result of his tireless efforts, few were surprised two years later when the Baltimore Ravens came calling. “My friends at the firm and the league would say it was the worst-kept secret that the top legal job at the Baltimore Ravens is the job I’ve dreamed of having ever since I set my sights on becoming a sports lawyer,” Etheridge says. Cass wanted someone who also understood the city of Baltimore and knew the law well. Etheridge spent the early part of his career working for the NFL and advising team lawyers. He was a Ravens fan and a member of the Maryland bar. It was a perfect fit.
Etheridge, who is still one of the league’s youngest general counsel, says he had to embrace his lack of experience with an air of transparency. Cass’s background as a lawyer helped, as did the Ravens’ hiring process. Cass and other leaders asked Etheridge to meet with every senior vice president in the organization. He developed good relationships with leaders in finance, marketing, public relations, sales, and other key areas.
“Everyone was invested in me, and I found myself with many mentors,” Etheridge says. “I can learn from all their styles, and I benefit from their knowledge every day. I never feel like I lack experience because I have so many veteran leaders ready to help me succeed.”
And Etheridge’s success isn’t going unnoticed. It’s not only his work as general counsel, but it’s also his involvement in his community that is inspiring others.
“Venable is honored to work with Brandon and the Ravens,” says Geoffrey R. Garinther, chair of the litigation division at Venable LLP. “Having known Brandon for many years and seeing firsthand how much he shares our deep commitment to the Baltimore community, we truly value our partnership.”
Etheridge has stepped into a key leadership role at an early age, but he hasn’t done so blindly. Throughout his career, he’s prepared himself by asking questions as he’s worked with firm partners or league office lawyers. He’s probed for their thoughts on key issues and tough situations. He’s watched and studied lawyers he’s opposed. It’s an approach that has helped Etheridge build his department and win the confidence of those around him. He understands both football and the law, which helps him navigate sponsorship deals and contract negotiations, as well as data privacy and legal staffing.
As Etheridge further develops in his role, he’s finding opportunities to help the franchise deepen its roots and strengthen its impact on the Baltimore area. The team celebrated its twentieth season at M&T Bank Stadium in 2017, and Etheridge says his peers are committed to maintaining a “first-class NFL venue and fan experience for the team’s dedicated fan base.”
They’ve recently invested $120 million in private funds to enhance Wi-Fi capabilities, introduce ultra-high definition 4K video boards, add LED ribbon signage, and upgrade seating areas. In phases two and three of the stadium project, the organization will improve the sound system, concession areas, and club levels. Throughout the process, Etheridge has been diligently negotiating agreements with architects and working out deals and approvals with the Maryland Stadium Authority. “We play ten games here every year, but the Ravens have a deep connection with Baltimore, and Baltimore has a deep connection with the Ravens,” he says. “We’re not just here to win. We’re here to be a positive force on our community.” Players and front-office staff are active in numerous outreach endeavors as well. In recent years, they’ve renovated schools, created mentoring programs, updated police stations, and participated in events designed to bridge divides between law enforcement and citizens.
For a local kid from Baltimore and nearby Columbia, it’s an important part of the job. “We take pride in our city and in our role as community leaders,” he says. “I still have to pinch myself when I drive to work each day. I’m fortunate to be here. And I know that I really am living the dream.”
Off the Clock
National nonprofit Up2Us Sports trains coaches in positive youth development and uses team athletics to help young people reach their full potential. The group, a pro bono client during Brandon Etheridge’s time at Covington & Burling, caught the attention of the former defensive end. In fact, the Up2Us mission resonated so strongly with Etheridge that he joined its board of directors.
Etheridge knows firsthand the power of education and says the organization is working hard to harness the power of sports and unite influencers and stakeholders to address low graduation rates, violence, obesity, and other issues that impact kids in underserved communities throughout the United States. Although Etheridge has resigned his board seat to give more attention to his role with the Baltimore Ravens, he hopes to start a Baltimore advisory committee designed to grow Up2Us in the surrounding community.
Photo: Phil Hoffman