NFL to City: Can we get another amen?


From Bob Dylan selling cars to a puppy selling beer to multilingual voices of brotherhood selling soda pop to the thunder and schmaltz of military flyovers and shout-outs from overseas, the latest Super Bowl reaffirmed against all doubters our national religion of consumerism, chauvinism and just plain feelin' good. I could almost imagine them topping it off by sacrificing a human brain atop a pyramid ringed by priests wearing bald eagle headdresses.

Wow, as always. No wonder the late mock celebrator of American decadence, Hunter S. Thompson, loved the National Football League. As a rare mix of cynic and romantic, he could count on the NFL as Nonstop Fear and Loathing without ever questioning its rule over hearts, minds and wallets. When this gold-plated caravan of controlled violence comes to your town, you can refuse to pay homage; but good luck refusing to pay attention, or tribute.

Provided we enact the special tax exemptions again, come up with another windfall to repair the infrastructure and fabricate mass transit, designate a lucky neighborhood for philanthropy, mobilize our standing army of special-events volunteers to knit the scarves, shower rose petals upon visiting NFL advance men and meet whatever further tests of worthiness are imposed, Indianapolis might play host to its second Super Bowl in 2018. For a cold-weather city to attain such honors six years apart seems a long shot - but curiously enough, there's limited competition. Not that many other cities want this enough to clear the decks as Indy's establishment will.

Should we want it? The last one ran in the red, not that that was unexpected. The impact on tourism was more speculative than spectacular. The practical benefits of sports subsidy in general are under hard-eyed scrutiny these days. But still, it's the Super Bowl, a world stage like no other. Even a sidelines crab like myself would have a hard time saying no.

What I would appreciate, though, is an honest yes. Please, please do not trumpet this second go-round as the Second Coming.

As I watched that annual rite of self-aggrandizement last Sunday, with the shameless commodifying of every ideal from peace to paternity, I couldn't help thinking about the way my city's leadership and media bought into the false religion two years ago. Pleasing VIP guests became the criterion for membership in the pantheon of great American cities; the Super Bowl became the defining moment for a city cast as a sleepy bump in the road that had no history until the Irsays arrived.

No 500-Mile Race. No Eli Lilly and Co. No Kurt Vonnegut. No world-class public library. No thousands of honest people working their butts off to feed their kids.

If a party meant this much to us, what did we value? The NFL and the glitterati in attendance never saw the real Indianapolis and could not have cared. What did our self-anointed spokespersons know or care? Was this unabashed civic inferiority complex everybody's, or just the elite's?

Having grown up here, I can appreciate how cosmopolitan we've become without forgetting that we didn't come from nowhere. I can also note that decades of mimicking the glamorous traits of other cities have not made us into Seattle or New Orleans (while we've picked up more of their problems than their amenities). Another Super Bowl will not give us wings, nor will it demonstrate - as our civic cheerleaders assure us - that we are indeed capable of greatness, that we can block and tackle all those urban challenges because Roger Goodell says so. Crime and poverty, through the uprights. It's the kind of thinking that says alcohol is love because a puppy kissed a horse.

In the commercials, in the pregame and postgame blather, in the sound bites from the hosts and the would-be hosts, we've been hearing the word "dream" until it's echoing in our sleep. Let's remember that the people running this secular church are not dreamers. If you go for what they're selling, be prepared for the passing of the plate and expect no miracles. "With God on Our Side" was just something Bob made up, back when he was awake.

Dan Carpenter is a freelance writer, a contributor to Indianapolis Business Journal and the author of "Indiana Out Loud."