Slate’s Sports Podcast on the Best and Worst Media Coverage of the Jovan Belcher Murder-Suicide

Slate's sports podcast.
Dec. 3 2012 6:18 PM

Hang Up and Listen: The How To Talk About a Murder-Suicide Edition

Slate’s sports podcast on Jovan Belcher, Alabama sports radio host Paul Finebaum, and the contretemps over the Spurs resting their starters.

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In this week’s episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca talk about Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide and the sports media’s coverage of the tragedy. Next, sports talk-radio legend Paul Finebaum joins the show to discuss Alabama’s win in the SEC title game and the state’s college football obsession. Lastly, they examine David Stern’s decision to fine the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 for resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Danny Green in a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat.

You can read the transcript of the interview with Paul Finebaum below.

Here are links to some of the articles and other items mentioned on the show:

Hang Up and Listen’s weekly Spike 80DFs:

Podcast production and edit by Mike Vuolo. Our intern is Eric Goldwein.

You can e-mail us at hangup@slate.com.

Transcript of interview with Paul Finebaum.

JOSH: On Saturday evening in the Georgia Dome, Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide overcame an 11-point second half deficit to beat the Georgia Bulldogs 32-28 to win the SEC title and earn a spot in the BCS Championship game, where they’ll line up against Notre Dame with a chance to win their third national title in four years. Who better to talk about the Tide than Paul Finebaum, the proprietor of the Paul Finebaum Radio Network, which can be heard on Sirius XM each day from 3-7 p.m. EST, as well as on every functional terrestrial radio in the state of Alabama. Paul has been the subject of recent profiles by Jack Dickey in Deadspin and Reeves Wiedeman in this week’s issue of the New Yorker, the latter of which notes that a recent satire of Alabama’s football obsession explains that “Saban is Jesus, Bear Bryant is God, and Finebaum is the Holy Spirit.” It’s not that often that we’re joined by the Holy Spirit on this show, so Paul Finebaum thank you for honoring us with your presence.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Bless all of you.

MIKE: It’s not all so often you hear the phrase “Finebaum is the Holy Spirit.”

PAUL FINEBAUM: No, and listen, I live in Birmingham, Alabama, and I would imagine there’s going to be a run on Barnes and Noble today for that New Yorker copy. Don’t you think? Do you think the New Yorker is a big seller down here? 

MIKE: I figured everyone would just sit back and wait for their delivery.

PAUL FINEBAUM: I would imagine that in the 1.1 million circulation, there’s what, maybe ten people in Alabama people who get it?

MIKE: Yeah, their objection is the content, and the name.

JOSH: Well, there is a story in the issue this week about gay homeless New York teens. So I’d imagine that that is a particular interest to your listenership.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Gay and Alabama are not two words you really hear in the same sentence very often.

JOSH: Yeah, well, let’s talk about football. Perhaps that would have a little bit of a crossover appeal to your crowd. So Alabama fans, in my estimation, like to think of their team as superior to all challengers. And recently they’ve been right, more often than not.  So my question for you is, does the SEC title game challenge or confirm that belief? Alabama won the game and it ran over Georgia—Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon did—but at the same time, the team kind of looked mortal, a little bit.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Someone said to me Saturday in Georgia, How is this happening, why is this happening? This is when Alabama went down 21-10. And he followed up by saying we’re supposed be ahead by two or three touchdowns every game. And that’s the way it went the first half of the season. When Ole Miss and Alabama played and it was only a 19-point margin, fans were mortally depressed. But now, after the LSU, A&M, and now this game, it’s unnerving but in the end, the Tide won, so that’s all fans here care about and it was meant to be that way. And now, not to get ahead of myself, but this matchup in Florida is going to be far more than just a battle of two football schools. It’s going to be the Catholics versus the Southern Baptists.

STEFAN: And that’s a far more important matchup of course than these two …

PAUL FINEBAUM: Well, down here it is. I mean really. But it has been an amazing year to watch Alabama because if Alabama had lost, what you were going to hear was, This is a transitional year, it’s a rebuilding year. Now that Alabama’s won, you probably won’t hear a lot about that. But this is not a great Alabama team by last year’s standards, and probably even by the 2008 and 2009 teams.

STEFAN: You’re never at a shortage of material down there in Alabama when it comes to football. And the last time we spoke on your show it was after I wrote a piece about Mike Price, the very short-lived head coach, and his escapades in a hotel room and the shoddy reporting by Sports Illustrated that landed Time Inc. in a multi-million-dollar libel lawsuit settlement. The notion that this matters so much fuels your show. I have two questions. How do you explain it, after all these years of talking about it? And second, are you ever unnerved by the content—that you are fomenting in a way this religiosity?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Oh my goodness, what a very interesting question. And I love the shot at Time Inc. there. In the New Yorker piece, which I have just read in 90 seconds, all 5,000 words, it talks about a phone call last year. Auburn won the national championship two years ago and a lot of people think it was tainted because of Cam Newton. We had an Alabama caller who just railed on that and after Auburn won, one of our main callers, a guy named Shane, came down with lung cancer and was dying. And an Auburn fan who had this war with him on the air, called in and said, He’s getting what he deserved—it’s karma for all the things he said. That describes the way it plays and the way it rolls down here among the fan bases. I don’t know what to do sometimes. I mean yeah, it’s unnerving. But this is my party, so I’m not going to tell you guys I’m embarrassed by what I do for a living. It is what I do. Ultimately there’s only one person to blame, that’s me. But I think there’s a need for it, and I think it’s healthier to have people screaming at each other, even wishing them death on a radio show, than taking it to the streets, which occasionally happens.

MIKE: You’re Jewish. You were born in Memphis, right, but your family’s from New York?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Correct.

MIKE: So do you feel a quasi-outsider? Do you have the anthropological insight that maybe someone who was steeped in the crimson would not be able to have?

PAUL FINEBAUM: I think so. And listen, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I got to this point, but I do think coming from a different world has helped. I’m not emotionally tied to Alabama football like someone who grew up here who went through, someone my age who lived as a young person through the ‘60s and the embarrassment and the shame of what transpired not too far from where I speak. Being the child of two New York liberal parents, the grandson of a Garment District union organizer. So, I’m still a Southerner, but according to some of the callers, I’m nothing more than a carpetbagger. I think I get it from both sides. And I know that’s a long answer to try to explain what goes on down here, but I think it’s healthier to come in here with some perspective and try to navigate the turmoil than to be an Alabamian trying to referee.

JOSH: So, kind of the animating force of your show is the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, which was not so much in effect this year when Alabama seemingly had a 35-point lead before Auburn got off the bus. But it was definitely in effect in this other famous call on your show, which was Al from Dadeville—later identified as Harvey Updyke—calling in in 2011 to say that he’d poisoned the trees at Toomer’s Corner on Auburn’s campus. We can listen to a clip of that right now.

CLIP BEGINS.

HARVEY UPDYKE: Well, let me tell you what I did. The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, because I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer’s trees.

PAUL FINEBAUM: OK, well that’s fair.

UPDYKE: I put Spike 80DF in ‘em.

FINEBAUM: Did they die?

UPDYKE: Do what?

FINEBAUM: Did they die?

UPDYKE: They’re not dead yet, but they definitely will die.

FINEBAUM: Is that against the law to poison a tree?

UPDYKE:  Well, do you think I care?

FINEBAUM: No.

UPDYKE: OK, I really don’t! Roll Damn Tide!

CLIP ENDS.

JOSH: Paul, you could tell on that clip that you didn’t really believe that he was serious, right?

PAUL FINEBAUM: No, I didn’t. And to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t paying much attention to him. I mean you get caller after caller, and after a while, they do all sound the same. What was interesting about this call is that he was arguing with me about something that happened 30 years ago that I knew was false. And I pushed him and I pushed him, and the only way that I can analyze this call—and I think it’s pretty easy to figure out—is that he wanted me to know something he had done. He’s an Alabama fan. He said, By the way this is what I did. And he thought by telling me what he had done, I was going to embrace it like, That’s a good thing. Since you hate Auburn and since you think they cheated in the Cam Newton case, then it’s okay to go out and poison their most treasured symbol, which is this oak tree on the foot of the campus. And that’s how it happened. Even when he said it I didn’t really think about it because he wasn’t like he said, I just wiped out a family of five. I mean we’re talking about a tree that didn’t mean a whole lot to me since I didn’t go to Auburn.

MIKE: And when similarly, when you had Mitt Romney on the show, and he casually dropped, Oh sure, NFL, I’m friends with the owners of the Dolphins, and the owners of the Jets. I was watching the video of that clip. Again, it didn’t look like you raised an eyebrow like, What did that guy just say?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Well, long story short, a friend of mine, Harvard Law graduate, went to work for Romney up in Boston. And he said, Hey, would you put Romney on? I said, I really don’t want to go down that road unless we can talk college football and make it interesting. And I don’t want to hear about the usual garbage about this and that. And that would go for the president as well. So I started talking about college football, and he didn’t know who Nick Saban was. I don’t believe this, this is the day before the Alabama primary and this guy’s on an Alabama sports show. You know, he went into his usual Romney-isms, and I had a question or two kind of jotted down in case the interview bombed, which it was. And I said by the way, I said Peyton Manning is about to make a decision, I know you’re a Patriots fan, what do you think? And he went into that line that, you know, Woody Johnson and the owner of the Dolphins are my best friends, some of my best friends are billionaires routine. It was funny, we have a guy who tweets for us. He missed it! He was like tweeting what he said about college football, and like you know, one of my staffers went to Ole Miss, and I really didn’t even hear what he said because I’m just thinking that I knew I had to wrap it up, and I’m looking at Twitter and all of a sudden I see Politico and CBS News and MSNBC. They’re all reporting what he said. I said, Did that happen right here? I know this is not making myself to be Sports Illustrated’s radio talk show of the year, but a lot of times you really just don’t hear what’s happening in your own earphones.

MIKE: I know, especially when the guy, you’re saying to yourself, this is the longest I have ever talked to someone who didn’t know who Nick Saban was.

PAUL FINEBAUM: When you don’t know Nick Saban, you don’t last very long. And I just didn’t know where to go, because I don’t need to explain Romney to anyone listening. I mean, he’s not a great interviewer.

STEFAN: What about the idea generally, Paul, of college football as an entity, you know us Northeast types have spent a lot of time in the last couple years talking about Taylor Branch’s essay in the Atlantic, and about paying players, and about the scandalous overpayment of coaches and universities buying out contracts at tens of millions of dollars, and foregoing their normal athletic department contributions to the academic side of schools because they’ve got to do these buyouts. Your fan base doesn’t really care obviously. Do you have a feeling on where college football needs to go or what needs to change, or do you think the cesspool just allows the entertainment to continue?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Well, my career started as an investigative reporter 30 years ago and I really thought I could change college football. You know like all of us when we’re just starting out and idealistic. It’s over for that now. It’s too big. It’s too much money. It’s now the No. 2 sport behind the NFL. And you can talk about it all day long at seminars at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but it’s not going to change. And I’ve embraced it. I know what it is. It’s a dirty business, we swim with sharks. But Saturday night in Atlanta, I saw 65-70,000 people watching one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever been at. And we’re heading to Miami for I think what will be one of college football’s biggest games ever. Not so much on the field, but in terms of the buildup. So yeah, do you have to check your soul at the door if you’re an advocate of college football? Sure. But I’m probably going to continue to do that.

JOSH: And to narrow it down a little but more back to Alabama specifically, all dynasties in world history and in college football must end someday.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Oh, this one will never end.

STEFAN: Josh says this as an LSU fan.

JOSH: I do. But there have been some fallow periods that you’ve very capably documented then the not-too-distant past. It wasn’t too long ago that Auburn was the king of the state, and now Gene Chizik is looking for a job. So, do you think it’s not going to happen for the Crimson Tide until Nick Saban decides to go back to the NFL or go back to LSU?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Well, every year I think it’s going to be the last one, and this year in July I picked LSU to win the national championship. And then the Honey Badger, his Heisman and LSU’s chances go up in marijuana smoke, and I jumped back on the Alabama bandwagon in time. I don’t know when it will end, but I will say that if Saban wins in Miami, that’s three out of four years. This is pretty unbelievable by today’s standards. And yes, it will come to an end. And I think at some point, he won’t be going back to LSU, but I do think he’ll be tempted by becoming the NFL’s first $10 million-a-year guy. I think even Nick is smart enough to know that maybe that he’s been at that craps table too long at the Beau Rivage or wherever, and it might be over. But no one’s going to convince me that it will happen this year. I think he’s still pretty hungry. He’s 61 years old, but you wouldn’t know it, whatever 61 means. I think he’s possessed. I think he’s possessed to win six national championships, which is the same number that Bear Bryant won—a guy who used to coach at Alabama.

MIKE: Now I heard you talk somewhat dismissively about Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Just like to point out that 43 of the first 44 champions of college football, one of those schools had at least a part of it. So they have college football history, too. As someone with an expertise into the mindset of Alabama, what do the Alabama fans think of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish. Because obviously they hate Auburn, but it seems to me like the Alabama fan, maybe the SEC fan, but definitely Alabama, really hates like a school like Oregon. There’s something about Oregon and these spread, let’s-score-65-points-a-game teams, that’s like a five-legged cat—it just ain’t right. So, obviously Alabama really wants to beat the Irish, but are they going to work themselves up into really hating them for reasons other than, they’re our next opponent and stand in the way of a championship?

PAUL FINEBAUM: I don’t think so, because Notre Dame’s in the club. What I find fascinating about this is that Alabama today is really what Notre Dame used to be. It used to be the epicenter of college football with the famous coach. I think Alabama fans are going to embrace it. Alabama and Oregon, I would have loved to have seen the game, but the two fan bases would not have mixed. I spent a week with Oregon fans two years ago at the national championship game and the five-legged-cat line, smoking a joint, I think fits best. Because I’ve never been around a weirder group in a football setting.  And then you had Auburn, which is kind of off-Broadway as well. There will be some discussion, I’ll predict, about the Catholics versus the folks down here entrenched in fundamental religion, and I hope it doesn’t go too far. But I had lunch the other day with a friend of mine who’s an archbishop and he was in Birmingham, was wearing a Notre Dame jacket. I told him, I said, I’d lose it the next couple weeks if you’re interested in making it to the New Year.

STEFAN: Yeah, because Oregon’s weird, but Bryant-Denny Stadium on a Saturday is a totally normal, normal place.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Yes, absolutely. But the thing about Alabama fans, they have an arrogance to them, but it’s earned lately. I mean, you can go back six years and Mike Shula was the coach and they were losing to Louisiana Tech and Northern Illinois, but today they’ve kind of taken it over and one thing about Alabama fans, even when they are down they still think they are going to come back. And that is different than a lot of fan bases.

JOSH: So let me end by asking about one fact that was mentioned in the New Yorker piece, which is that you’ve unsuccessfully started several novels, including a murder mystery involving Bear Bryant. So my guess is that it was Ray Perkins with a houndstooth hat in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Am I close?

PAUL FINEBAUM: Yeah, I’ve got some great ideas. My biggest problem—and I was a sports columnist for a long time before I got into this—my biggest problem with writing a novel is I’m not sure I can write. I’ll be three, four, or five chapters into it and I’m reading it and I go, This is terrible. Like a lot of writers, you guys all know, I’m just maybe a little hypercritical of myself. But I also have this idea about a novel on Bryant which I was afraid would end up costing me in the end because he was involved in some ‘60s love affair with an African-American. And I thought it would end badly in the book, and probably my life might end quickly as well if it was ever published.

JOSH: Alright Paul, well we’re glad that you’re still alive.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Well, so far.

JOSH: Thank you so much for joining us today.

PAUL FINEBAUM: It was my pleasure.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

Mike Pesca is the host of the Slate daily podcast The Gist. He also contributes reports and commentary to NPR.

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