Many Camera readers are no doubt aware of the recent flap over the Denver Broncos' decision to host a campaign rally for George W. Bush. The Broncos received several complaints from angry fans who viewed the rally as an ill-advised move by a team that is loved by Colorado Republicans and Democrats alike. Coach Mike Shanahan, in particular, was heavily criticized for his open endorsement of Bush, which included a presentation of a Bronco jersey to the candidate.
On March 15, the Broncos apologized to their angry fans by way of an interview granted to The Rocky Mountain News' Sam Adams. The Broncos told Adams that the entire event was a miscalculation made by Bronco Vice President of Business Operations Joe Ellis. Ellis is Bush's cousin. He admitted to Adams that he was a bit overzealous in convincing the organization to sponsor the event for his candidate cousin. He claims that the event wasn't meant to be a corporate "endorsement" of Bush. His intention was merely to "greet" a famous personality who just happened to be in town. He explained that he thought the criticism of Shanahan was especially unfair, because Ellis was the one who asked Shanahan to play such a prominent role in the rally.
This may seem like an earnest attempt by the Broncos to answer the legitimate concerns of their angry fans. But really it has more do with the club's need to cover itself after openly violating federal campaign law. Indeed, it is a big-league example of corporate spin, and it can tell us a lot about how corporations sell themselves as a friendly "corporate family" that is just like your family and mine.
The Bronco apology is presented to us in the form of a mea culpa from an overzealous Bush family member. "I probably put family loyalty in front of the organization, and I'm not sure I'd do it again," Ellis told The News. Wouldn't you get excited if your cousin were running for president? So much so that you might strong-arm a famous Super Bowl coach into helping the family cause? Forget the fact that corporate decisions that involve the entire enterprise are seldom made by one lone vice president. The Broncos would nevertheless have you believe that family ardor understandably led the entire organization astray.
The Broncos also portray Shanahan as a victim of Ellis's enthusiasm. But does anyone really think that Shanahan takes orders from the man in charge of meeting the administrative payroll and making sure that the predominantly orange merchandising is predominantly profitable? Perhaps some fans will recall how Shanahan snubbed President Clinton by not attending one of the post-Super Bowl White House visits. Shanahan slyly intimated to local reporters that his reasons "might have been political." Maybe that Svengali, Joe Ellis, commanded Shanahan to snub Clinton. But I doubt it. More likely, Shanahan is fond of gratuitous political gestures. He may actually think the world cares about the non-football opinions of a football coach. And the Broncos seem to have decided it is better to appeal to our "family values" than to admit that their famous coach is a loose political cannon.
I suspect, too, that the distinction Ellis makes between a "greeting" and an "endorsement" has more to do with the Broncos' concern over violating federal election law, than it does with family solidarity. Consider these excerpts from the Federal Election Code pertaining to candidate visits to corporate facilities: "Corporations may permit candidates on corporate premises to address or meet their employees. If representatives of a political party are permitted to address or meet employees, representatives of all political parties who request to appear must be given a similar opportunity to appear. A corporation shall not, in conjunction with any candidate, candidate representative or party representative appearance under this section of the code, expressly advocate the election or defeat of any clearly identified candidate(s) or candidates of a clearly identified political party and shall not promote or encourage express advocacy by employees."
To put it in layman's terms, the Broncos and the Bush campaign broke the law. Corporations aren't supposed to openly endorse candidates during campaign visits because such endorsements have the effect of intimidating employees who happen not to support the candidate.
What amazes me is that even when they spin, the Broncos admit guilt. Notice that Ellis, a corporate vice president, admits asking Mike Shanahan, an employee, to take a prominent role in the rally. This is a clear violation of the law forbidding a corporation to "promote or encourage express advocacy by employees." I find it hard to believe that the Bush campaign and the candidate's cousin are ignorant of the law. Clearly, though, they think that fans and concerned citizens should accept the family excuse.
The Broncos are by no means the only firm to appeal to our sense of family. Years ago I was the manager a local packaging facility. A year or two before I joined the company, the owners got themselves into trouble for refusing to pay hourly employees time-and-a-half for overtime. They justified their refusal on the grounds that overtime laws were designed to prevent sweatshops, and their company a progressive Boulder firm in the natural foods industry that was constantly reminding its employees that they were part of a "corporate family"--clearly wasn't a sweatshop. This went on for a number of months until an employee reported the firm to the state labor board. The state informed the firm that they were acting like a sweatshop and forced them to pay back-overtime and state fines. It is amazing how corporations even our beloved Broncos and our own gourmet food purveyors can so blithely assume that the law doesn't apply to them, just because they respect the institution of the family. Bronco owner Pat Bowlen did his part to add a few revs to the Bronco spin machine. He professed a genuine lack of interest in politics and assured reporters that "if (Al) Gore came and said, 'We want to have a rally at Broncos headquarters,' he'd "have no problem with it." Of course he wouldn't: federal law mandates that he would have to comply with such a request.
This reminds me of how my former employer used to state in its employee handbook that it was "proud to be an equal opportunity employer." It's always gratifying to see corporations take pride in complying with the law. Wouldn't you feel just great if your were a recently hired black employee and your company told you that they were proud of themselves for not discriminating against you? Bowlen, that fatherly advocate of uninterested fairness, apparently would be proud, too.
I am a lifelong Bronco fan and happy consumer of corporate products. But that doesn't mean that I, or any other satisfied corporate customer, has to buy the corporate bull. The Broncos, thankfully, are so clumsy that most people can clearly see when they spin out of bounds. This isn't always the case especially with family oriented local businesses. I think we would all like to enjoy our bread and circuses and, for that matter, our tofu, gourmet coffee, and organic vegetables without having to listen to political posturing and a lot of prating about the family.
Copyright 2000 The Daily Camera