(Pictured above: Beth Salsgiver, Anna Sholl, M. Natalie McSherry, and Brandon Etheridge)
On Feb. 20, 2023, Brandon Etheridge met with fellow Maryland State Bar Association members at the association’s Professional Excursion to San Juan for an informal discussion of his experiences as the Baltimore Ravens’ Senior Vice President & General Counsel. Former MSBA President M. Natalie McSherry moderated the discussion.
Etheridge’s direct involvement in football started long before he became the Ravens’ top lawyer in 2016. In 2003, he attended Yale University on a football scholarship, followed by Harvard Law School. After graduating, he worked at Covington & Burling LLP, where he handled employment law matters for the National Football League. The NFL’s in-house lawyers successfully recruited Etheridge to their practice in New York City, after which his hometown team, the Baltimore Ravens, hired him as its General Counsel. In 2021 he was promoted to Senior Vice President as well as General Counsel.
When he started with the Ravens, Etheridge naturally brought the approach of a lawyer who understands what the law requires and what needs to be done within the organization. He learned quickly that knowing the law was only part of the job. He found that he also had to establish trust with his internal clients so they would hear his counsel, understand it, and live into the law’s requirements.
To do that, he built a fair and efficient legal infrastructure to support the good working operations of a complex organization. In time, he came to be regarded as an authoritative counsel on legal matters, and his role evolved to where he is now more directly involved in evaluating risk in business decisions. His role evolved in helping shape the Ravens’ corporate culture as well.
Regarding corporate culture, an attendee at the Feb. 20 MSBA discussion said Ravens players have told him that, in the workers’ compensation context, the Ravens treat their players better than other NFL teams do.
Etheridge said that he sets policy that expresses the kind of organization the Ravens will be, which informs how the Ravens, and its contractors, treat people within and outside the organization. “We refuse to get nasty, try to see reason, and approach adversarial issues with comity,” he said, “and it will never be acceptable to be callous to a current or former player, vendor, or suite holder.” Once an issue is resolved, “we can go forward knowing all parties were treated fairly.”
Etheridge gave great credit for this corporate culture to Executive Vice President Ozzie Newsome, a former tight end, “the architect of Baltimore’s Super Bowl XXXV and Super Bowl XLVII championship teams” according to the Ravens, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Etheridge described Newsome as a deeply humble man despite his vast accomplishments, and expressed gratitude and awe that he works with him. Newsome’s generosity of character has influenced everyone in the Ravens organization, including Etheridge.
One effect of the Ravens’ corporate culture is that personnel tend to stay with the organization for a long time. That is a downside for Etheridge because he joined the organization after 2013, which is when the Ravens last won the Super Bowl. Now, unfortunately for Etheridge, he is one of the few people there who doesn’t own a Super Bowl ring.
The trust Etheridge has built within the organization helped him evolve his role in another significant way.
In 2017, when national attention focused on acts of police misconduct, Ravens players wanted a platform for their voices to be heard. That was an opportunity for Etheridge to gain a greater facility with the powerful platform of a professional sports franchise. For guidance, he reached out to the late Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland’s 7th Congressional District.
Representative Cummings shared his views with Etheridge on the First Step Act, a bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform Act of Congress. Around that time, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin visited the team and spoke in support of the Act.
Etheridge drafted a public letter in support of the Act, and nine Ravens players signed it after Etheridge spent time “walking them through” the specifics of the issue. He wanted them effectively able to respond to people who might dismiss their voices, which so often happens to professional athletes and entertainment figures. Top management also signed the letter. The Act became law in 2018
For the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, Etheridge repeated this effort in tandem with Senator Cardin. He believes the Ravens was the only professional football team to publicly support the Act. Though the Act failed in a narrowly divided Senate after passing the House, Etheridge resumed advocating on police issues at the state level.
In the wake of these public actions, “many organizations look to the Ravens because of their platform and their ability to amplify their voices,” Etheridge said. He began to see social justice efforts as an important legacy goal for someone in his role. Another person will naturally occupy his position someday, but the societal impact one can have in his position can last much longer.
On the state level, Etheridge worked with former Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who himself was in attendance for Etheridge’s discussion. While Frosh was still in office. they partnered to advocate for the Maryland Police Accountability Act, and for legislation to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic fines and fees, which legislation Etheridge characterized as “decriminalizing poverty.”
Etheridge’s social justice activities have had more than a passing impact on the thoughts and actions of the players. “The Ravens’ social impact efforts are player-led,” he said. Wide receiver Chris Moore told Etheridge he was sick to hear of children being sent home from schools that were too hot in the warm months and too cold in the cold months, denying the children the school lunch on which so many of them depend.
To deal with that problem, a number of Ravens players, along with management, contributed $200,000 to Lakewood Elementary, located in East Baltimore. ”Lakewood’s enrollment consists of 40% special needs, and 65% of the students qualify for free and reduced meals,” according to the Ravens organization. The donation went toward upgrading the school’s HVAC system.
The Maryland State Bar Association was grateful for a glimpse inside one of Maryland’s most celebrated organizations. Some members in attendance for Etheridge’s discussion had hoped to hear about contract talks and Quarterback Lamar Jackson. But the consensus was they learned something even more interesting about the role of a corporate counsel, and the positive effect a corporate counsel can have within and beyond the walls of an organization.