The Power of Illusion: How Indianoplace Spurs Ideological Control

“Sports always have had an important social function…modern American sports culture shapes cultural attitudes, norms, and power arrangements, and it also serves as a key place to look if you want to understand how these norms and power structures have been negotiated, resisted, struggled with, and against…Sports culture produces stories that become the dominant narratives and that makes certain ways of seeing the world normal, conventional, just the way it is.  While at the same time actively trying to silence anything or anybody who doesn’t fit into this accepted frame.”   — Dave Zirin

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was torpedoed by the opposition’s ability to paint her decision-making as questionable.  A significant piece in advancing this narrative was her choice to use a private email server for official government business. When emails began appearing in media sources, these concerns seemed to be realized.  One minor side note to this national story was a short email sent by Clinton in 2010 to one of her aides asking, “Are you still in basketball crazed Indianoplace?”

Clinton uncomfortably explained away this email with the grace of an unknowingly racist grandparent—it was just a joke, the people who live there refer to themselves that way, and of course she herself is a Midwesterner who enjoyed the short time she lived in the city during the 1976 campaign.  But Clinton was crystal clear about why she really respects this place now, “I am a very big admirer of the city and the way it looks and how it has grown over the years,” she told the local Indianapolis press.  While many issues certainly dogged Clinton’s campaign, this comment highlights her perceived inability empathize and connect with working people.  Clinton’s backhanded compliment reflects the assertiveness and success of the Circle City’s growth coalition and its ability to mold Indianapolis into a cultural center for elite and corporate conspicuous consumption.

As geographer David Wilson explains, metaphors “are value-laden constructions, instruments of coercion, whose embeddedness in common language deeply politicizes everyday life in a way conducive to the agenda of investors in inner city properties, and to the white elite in general,” (2014). Within this framework, metaphors such as “Indianoplace” and its oft-used cousin “Naptown” are much more than the harmless jokes they are portrayed to be, but rather a more insidious use of language to mold and manipulate community ideology towards a more sympathetic stance on elite policy interests.  Using professional sports as a front facing personality for policy gains a great deal of political capital and outside support from the masses.  In Indianapolis, the imagery of the localized sports culture is how the city projects and markets itself to outsiders and how locals compare itself to other municipalities.

I will suggest that the assumptions bundled into these metaphors about the city negatively influences local pride, which in-turn contributes to further strengthening support of public policy addressing the city’s image.  In totality, this is just one minor factor working in favor of those who would prefer to use community wealth towards enhancing the opportunities of private enterprise.  Additionally, I will provide a bit of historical context on how this sports-based public policy has taken shape in Indianapolis.

On the advice of Hoosier historian James Madison, I attempt to provide a “history for adults,” one that does not elevate perceived economic successes to the levels of mythology, while failing to produce any level of critical insight.  Sociologists are well positioned to contribute to this discussion by defining how individuals and groups shape policy towards their own personal interests and to connect this action back to the resulting social structure and economic system.  While sociology “can’t tell us what is right and wrong,” Michael Schwalbe explains, “it can inform our moral judgments by helping us see how our social practices affirm or betray our best values,” (2016).

Tackling a Metaphorical Inferiority Complex

Originally plotted out as a new centrally located state capital in 1821, Indianapolis was a manufactured city at its origin.  Evidence of this can still be seen in the local geography, including the uniformity of downtown streets, the large round-a-bout at the center of the city, and a generally useless canal that was carved out soon after the city was founded.  The state remained largely rural throughout its history and the capital city mirrored this image through the Civil War.  Growing steadily in the 2nd half of the 19th century, it was not until the 1970 census and the implementation of the UniGov system that Indianapolis broke into the top 20 most populous U.S. cities.

It was this process of slow municipal development that led locals to aspire to be seen on an equal level as their earlier developing geographical neighbors.  As a result of this late economic start and the ongoing historical symbolism and stigma of local residents being portrayed as backwood hicks, one sees many in the local population as suffering from an inferiority complex.  This condition is continually reinforced through the language of negative metaphors, through the media, and a host of political and community stakeholders and interest groups who are invested in creating a thriving local economy.

Primarily though, for the average citizens of Indianapolis, our sporting culture fulfills the primal urge to tell you that we are better than your city.  This is tactic is used to fight back against the illusion of Naptown and Indianoplace.  This reaction is directly related to our competitive nature that fuels our love for the games being played and how proud we are to host these events.  A 1998 survey revealed that auto racing, the NFL’s Colts, and the NBA’s Pacers were the top three contributors to civic and national pride.

Findings like this are critical to understanding how residents of the city “feel” about themselves and their “place,” as this is should be seen as one of the driving factors in taxpayers willingness to support sports-based public policy, even though such action may have an adverse effect on their own personal pocketbooks.  Overall, there seems to be a clear and present ongoing danger in the minds of locals that if sports culture and the sports business had not grown into the wildly profitable industry that we see today, Indianapolis would be nothing but a few intersecting dirt roads, a couple of high school basketball gymnasiums and a greasy spoon or two to choke down a fried tenderloin sandwich.

Ninety-four year old World War II veteran, Russell Van Treese, has attended each of the past ninety Indianapolis 500’s and embodies Hoosier reverence for sport and its embedded cultural traditions.  When the local media got wind of this, VanTreese became a bit of a local celebrity, even receiving a ride around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a two-seat IndyCar driven by Mario Andretti.  He speaks passionately about his experiences and the drivers that he rooted for at the city’s signature event, but he plainly states that the city “would probably just be some little place in the road” without the signature racing event.

The media plays directly into this social unease around the loss of a part of this culture.  Recently, Indianapolis Star sports columnist Gregg Doyel penned a column with the premise that the Colts could possibly leave the city…that is, in ten or twenty years.  He argued that this should be “terrifying” after how much taxpayer money has already been spent to keep the town, “because at some point, the next NFL city to lose a franchise could be ours.”  The whole point behind his column was the implication that we should already be panicking and this should unofficially serve as an unspoken, covert notice that if taxpayers want to continue enjoying this luxury good, then they better be prepared to heavily subsidize industry profits.

The Mobilization of Bias Toward a Sports-based Economic Strategy

Historian Bob Barrows has referred to Indianapolis as the “silver buckle on the rust belt” referencing the city’s ability to transition more successfully to a post-industrial, information based economy than our Midwestern counterparts.  Joining in with local Fortune 500 companies Anthem, Inc., Eli Lilly Pharmaceuticals, and the Simon Property Group, the city has a growing biotech and health and information science sectors, which sits alongside and encourages this sports-based economic strategy.  Each of these local intuitions and economic sectors have contributed critical elements in molding the positive imagine that city leaders wanted to project beginning in the late 1960s through the present.

It should be acknowledged, that this city was not always the place that Secretary Clinton heaped praise on for “the way it looks.”  Sandy Knapp, a former President of the Indianapolis Sports Corporation and Public Relations director for the Indiana Pacers, described Indianapolis in the late 1960s as “boring, ugly” and place where you didn’t really want to be.  The city was, after all, a center of government and business and when those tasks were complete, the doors were locked and the lights were turned out.  Local downtown business generally closed up and left soon after, as they were unable to generate enough business to stay open after business hours.

Perceived success in hosting large scale sporting events has created a snowball effect where one project and policy has led naturally to another.  Sporting cathedrals were raised, only to be demolished and replaced by others with more modern amenities.  The National Sports Festival in 1982 and 1987 Pan-American Games cemented in place the idea that Indianapolis could not only host major sporting events, but excel at it.  In 1999, the NCAA relocated its headquarters to the city which has now hosted ten Final Four NCAA basketball events and is the semi-permanent home of the Big Ten’s Championship football game.  In 2012 the city played host to Super Bowl XLVI, arguably the city’s most impressive feat to date.  Other non-sports economic projects including shopping centers at Union Station and Circle Center Mall, the White River State Park area to the west of downtown, which includes the Indianapolis Zoo, an amphitheater for touring musicians, and the Eiteljorg Museum, along with the development of the IUPUI campus and many other neighborhood specific projects have subsequently contributed to the rebranding and redevelopment of the downtown area.

As political scientist E.E. Schattsneider noted many years ago, the voices who “sing” the loudest in an attempt to control public policy do so with a “strong upper class accent,” (1960).  A significant portion of the movement of elite mobilization bias is conducted out of the public eye, where the average citizens have little understanding of the policy formation that is occurring behind gilded, closed doors.  Simply stated, the public’s policy is created and formed by a group of individuals, each who have their own personal interests to serve and they exhibit a polished method of crafting these interests into policy.

In understanding this process, we turn our attention to the actions community and actors whose influence is clearly defined in this process.  While elite interests reach out into many sectors, the difficulty in defeating this type of policy lies in the interlocking of interests from a coalition of supporters, not just the economic beneficiaries and the fans who get to continue cheering for their team.  Politicians get to put their names on new buildings, take part in photo-ops with comically oversized scissors and brag that they were able to keep a team in town.  Local unions and tradesmen are able to get an extended period of steady work.  Local journalists have a vested interest in projecting support of these projects, especially sports journalists who may lose their job or be required to relocate if a team changes location. It is this diverse support makes it very difficult to defeat money grabs towards public dollars by private interests.

The “City Committee,” a single issue bi-partisan group concerned with advancing their own image of how the city’s redevelopment would move forward.  Membership was limited to an invitation only status of male executives, primarily businessmen, bankers, lawyers, civic leaders, educators, and the leaders of philanthropic organizations.  Former Indiana State Senator and committee member Louis Mahern described his peers as “by and large white middle-class males who view the world a bit differently.”  While Mahern expresses the fallacy of the middle-class, the important piece to understand is that this committee set about a wave of redevelopment focuses at increasing land values and gentrification.  The goal of this policy was to provide not just an opportunity for the wealthy to travel downtown to consume, but an opportunity to live there as well (Caleca, 1991).

Other groups whose roles in this process should be examined include the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee, the Corporate Community Council, and the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.  Additionally, we should not forget the role of non-profit corporations, such as the Indiana Sports Corporation, whose sole purpose is to attract events and ensure that the city and state can take on the debt required for these projects as the Indiana Constitution does not allow for the state itself to become a debtor.

Philanthropic organizations, such as the Eli Lilly Endowment and the Krannert Charitable Trust, played an expanded role in funding much of the city’s expenses developing spaces such as the Major Taylor Velodrome, the Natortorium on the campus of IUPUI, and the Hoosier Dome, all of which were necessary to hosting major amateur sports gatherings.  Between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, the Lilly Endowment spent a total of $140 million on downtown infrastructure projects.

While this policy is supported by many community groups, elected politicians inevitably become the public face of the policy.  Indianapolis mayors Richard Luger and William Hudnut, who served from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, both espoused the idea of sports a tie that binds the community together.  As Hudnut remarked, “Sports could motivate people to rally round.  They have an energizing effect that other causes – such as building a steel mill or making us the insurance capital of the country or improving city housing – just do not possess.”  While Hudnut took the strategy of attempting to unite citizens through his economic plan, more recently Mayor Greg Ballard chose a different route, one that is becoming more familiar in these types of discussions, to engage in the politics of fear.  During the local debate surrounding whether or not a new stadium would be built to satisfy the NFL’s Colts, Ballard emphasized that losing the Colts would inflict significant damage on our well-earned “big-city” imagine (Cadle, Carroll, Medhin, and Pfaff 2013:12).

Finally, we must examine the individual action of private citizens within these networks who are heavily invested in this process. While the actions of many should be closely examined to understand how relationships built through elite social networks contribute to the success of individual projects within this plan, I will focus here on just one, James Morris.  While it might be easy to overstate the influence of one individual, looking at Morris’ resume it is clear that he sat in many closed door meetings pushing the city towards this focus.  Morris first served in a top assistant role to Mayor Luger, concurrently as a concerned citizen on the City Committee, later moving on to a series of positions at the Lilly Endowment (where he would eventually rise to the level of President), a role as a trustee at Indiana University, and today he serves in an executive role for the Indiana Pacers.

So, has this sports-centric public policy “worked” in Indianapolis?  According to those who formed and put the policy into action, the answer is obvious.  They point to the events that the city has hosted and the physical and economic growth experienced in the downtown area.  They show evidence that other cities are quick to congratulate Indianapolis on their great economic strategy—many times cities will point out our success as they begin the process of proposing the use of public tax dollars for sports stadiums.  One Cleveland beat writer who attended the city’s Super Bowl marveled at the “synergy” of the city, while confidently announcing that Cleveland “boosters would love to replicate that kind of triumph…” (Johnston, 2012).

With that, I will provide a critique offered by the now long defunct Indianapolis News – “If the point is to make a city appear to be beautiful, prosperous, functioning, no matter what the real underlying problems are, then of course the Hoosier Dome and all the other things have been a success,” (11/15/1989, p. A1).

On Shifting Public Policy Goalposts

With the nature of public policy, there will always be groups that gain an advantage while others are losing out.  Nevertheless, if we were to define an ideal type for public policy, the moral and socially responsible position to advocate would be the one where the most people stand to receive benefit.  With accountability reset to focus on the entire community as the metric determining success, this sports focused economic strategy is revealed to be an increasingly reckless, self-indulgent, and irresponsible economic position.

As the great Howard Zinn once wrote, “the chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying – but, rather omission of or a complete de-emphasis of data that should be considered important,” (1990: 51).   This is certainly the case in Indianapolis where we have celebrated this economic strategy as boosting up our city as a model of success because we have been able to attract big-time sporting events and raise a few fancy buildings and sports cathedrals.  We can begin to build a critique of this suggested strategy by shedding light on a few historical facts that are regularly omitted from this discussion.

First, the burden and overall costs to taxpayers should not be underestimated.  While it is true that some economic benefit is created through these large scale public works projects, on the whole, these projects do not provide significant return on investment for taxpayers. The economic benefit that is created is concentrated amongst economic elites. In some cases, “winning” still means a financial loss, as it was when the city hosted the Super Bowl with a deficit of over $1 million.  To this end, Capital Improvement Board’s Ann Lathan commented that “if you think about it, to spend a million dollars for the branding and the effort that is generating for us is a pretty good return on investment.”  I am confident to report that if you polled local community groups, a significant majority of them would see this as a colossal waste of precious community resources.

In addition to taking on municipal loans, these large scale public works projects are typically funded through increasing and creating a new series of regressive taxes, including localized sales, restaurant, beverage, hotel, and rental car fees.  Generally not tracked is the community wealth that is diverted towards the sports industry that is not included in the formal cost estimates– for instance, the cost of increased police coverage during events and the cost of infrastructure upgrades to service new venues.

While each of these projects deserves their own thorough analysis, here I will focus on the two largest, most costly.  First, the Hoosier Dome (er…RCA Dome).  Opening in 1984, the building was planned and built with an eye towards luring a professional football or baseball team to the area.  Hudnut’s mayoral administration was careful to refer to it only in terms of an expansion of the current convention center space, not as a domed stadium.  Serving multiple purposes, this allowed the administration an out if they failed to lure a major league team and more importantly, in terms of funding the project, it allowed philanthropic organizations, such as the Lilly Endowment and the Krannert Charitable Trust to cover about one-third of the total construction costs.

This extra financial boost helped gain the consent of many fiscally conservative Hoosiers.  However, only a few saw through the civic celebration to question the morality of these groups giving municipal gifts that in turn assist and contribute to elite economic interests. Kimberly Schimell cites Waldamar A. Neilson’s 1985 Golden Donors:

“In the history of American philanthropy, there has never been a foundation expenditure of equivalent size given on weaker economic justification, more questionable grounds of social benefit, and more dubious distribution of benefits among local politicians, profit-seeking entrepreneurs, and the needier elements of the population.”

Although this building disappeared from the Indianapolis skyline in late 2008, local taxpayers will not have completed footing the bill until 2021.  As of 2014, the city still owed $43.7 million (original principle was $47M) (Welsh, 2014).

This pales in comparison to the building that replaced it.  The $620M financed for the Lucas Oil stadium Bonds stadium were issued for the project in 2005 and 2007 through Greg Carey, a Goldman Sachs financier who specialized in completing stadium deals (he completed a total of 28 similar deals).  Unfortunately for taxpayers, the city invested in fixed-rate bonds right before the economy tanked.  As the Federal Reserve took steps to keep interest rates low, the city eventually had no choice but to refinance this debt in 2015, costing taxpayers another $71 million in fees paid to Goldman Sachs.

Chicago Tribune columnist David Rutter connects the dots in leveling his powerful critique that “the reborn Indianapolis that Hoosiers admire is a Ponzi scheme” where old debt has been wrapped into new debt and the old debt has never been fully reconciled.  Rutter continues, “The same state that shuns Medicare expansion and public education as too expensive handed out millions to millionaires” in these transactions.

If we were consider these projects a success, an increase in standard of living for everyone in the community would be observed.  In the lexicon of atrocious and debunked economic theory, a rising tide would have lifted all boats.  However, when looking at the data, this is just not the case.  In the first twenty years of the city taking this economic strategy, from 1970 through 1990, the number living in poverty in Indianapolis rose by about 3%, from 9.5% to 12.3% (Levine, 1998).  However, looking between 1980 and the present, the poverty rate in Indianapolis has doubled to 22% today (Gilmer, 2016 and Levine, 1998).  A 2015 CBS News report listed Indianapolis the 9th poorest city in the country, citing a Brookings Institute study reporting a recent spike in local income inequality.  Another study listed the city as ranking near the bottom of upward income mobility in the 50 largest metro areas in the United States (Kennedy, 2015).  While we enjoy our elevated place in the sporting world, it has not necessarily contributed to our overall level of happiness, as one survey listed the city as they 126th out of 150 “happiest” metro area (Cox, 2017).

Words Matter

By viewing the totality of this history of an economic agenda placing the production of sporting events above all else, Hoosiers love for sports and athletic competition has been coopted by elite forces as a means to shift the burden of sporting infrastructure and urban redevelopment costs away from industry and on to taxpayers, and disproportionately on the working class.

The words and phrases that we use to describe people, places, and public policy matter.  One can look no farther than the recent public discussions on the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, where one survey found that over one-third of respondents did not know that the ACA was the same law as Obamacare.  Referring to this city as Indianoplace or Naptown in a public forum contributes to an everyday false consciousness about the city.  The negative metaphors about Indianapolis wield a great deal of ideological power and possess the ability to control citizen’s political decision making because Hoosiers carry a great deal of pride in their place.

Author’s Note:  This paper was presented at the North Central Sociological Association Conference in Indianapolis, IN on 4/1/2017.

D.L. Coombs

D.L. Coombs

I teach college students about the virtues of the Luddites while working at a software development company. I rely on name calling and hyperbole because facts are for schmucks.
D.L. Coombs

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