Time for relegation?
British soccer makes teams earn their spot in top leagues - could we adopt that model here?
With the latest upending of the college sports landscape - University of Southern California and the University of California Los Angeles bolting their longtime home in the PAC 12 Conference for the Big 10 - an intriguing idea is starting to percolate in the media: Adopt relegation as practiced by the British soccer leagues (as well as the PGA Tour in golf).
The concept of relegation is simple: The bottom couple of teams in each higher league are demoted to the next level down at the end of the season - with the top couple of teams in that lower league promoted to the higher league. (The PGA Tour does the same with its individual members - the players at the bottom of the rankings each year lose their tour card, and are no longer eligible to enter Tour events, while the best-performing players on the junior Korn Tour are promoted.)
It rewards both effort and competence, and offers fans of teams in lower-level leagues the hope that one day their favorite team can compete for the most prestigious championship in their sport.
As applied to college football, by both Outkick’s Chad Withrow on June 29 and Andrew Beaton in The Wall Street Journal on July 4, each major conference - SEC, Big 10, ACC or Big 12 or Pac 12 (if any of the latter three survive the current chaos) - would have an association with a lower-level conference: The Mountain West, Conference USA, etc.
You could even extend that down to the next-lower tier, what’s known as the Football Championship Subdivision, still Division I level teams. Beneath that you have the Div. II and then Div. III programs.
At the end of each season, the two worst football programs in the higher conference would be reassigned to the lower conference, while the top two teams in the lower conference would be promoted.
Of course, your Indiana and Rutgers and Vanderbilt administrators are never going to go for it - the better the conference you’re in, the more TV money you receive, even though those schools rarely are in contention for a conference championship - or even a winning record.
Probably the only authority that could convince the university presidents in the big conferences to adopt such a scheme is Congress - which is presently so dysfunctional that seems highly unlikely.
But there are a heck of a lot more alumni of the 200-some schools with no chance to play for a national football title than there are of the couple dozen schools that currently monopolize the system - and income. So an effort to apply a modicum of competitive fairness to the university landscape would seem to have some built-in voter support.
(And as has been pointed out in this space before, only about two dozen schools so much as break even on their athletics programs - the rest are soaking their non-scholarship students with fees and assessments to underwrite their money-losing sports programs.)
As much money as the big conferences get for their television broadcast rights, it’s dwarfed by what the U.S. government spends on higher education: Pell grants, G.I. Bill tuition, guaranteed student loans - plus all the research grants from the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, Education, Energy and Health & Human Services. Make eligibility for all federal programs dependent on adopting an open relegation system, and the college presidents may squawk - but they’ll eventually fall in line.
They couldn’t afford not to.
And it’s not as if Congress’ doesn’t have a legitimate role in this. After all, the NCAA - which the big conferences are currently busy writing out of the college sports landscape - was created in 1906 by congressional charter in reaction to a spate of on-field deaths and devastating injuries.
College basketball and baseball could be rolled into this, too - perhaps rather than having one school with teams in three different conferences, each year schools would be assigned on their overall competitiveness across different sports.
Although having a foot in different conferences wouldn’t be all that difficult, either.
Professional baseball is another sport that could use relegation - and the players’ union might actually find some reasons to be in favor of it.
While certain teams are known for spending the bare minimum in player salaries, giving themselves no chance to compete for the end of season playoffs - but fattening the bank accounts of their owners, who share in the Major League Baseball TV contract - relegation would force your Pittsburgh Pirates, your Oakland As, your, sigh, Cincinnati Reds, to spend money to compete for free agents in order to avoid relegation to the AAA level in the minor leagues.
And if the Buffalo Bisons or the Indianapolis Indians win their minor league championship, and draw higher attendance than, say, the Pirates or As, why shouldn’t they get a chance to move up to the big leagues the next year?
Now, since the minor leagues’ rosters are controlled by their Major League affiliates, perhaps the eligibility for relegation up or down could take into consideration attendance, marketing, etc. If Albuquerque or Sacramento is able to draw more fans and win more games than the Royals or Tigers, maybe those fans should get a chance at a Major League season the next year.
The Major League teams that spend money on free agents, that put their TV revenue back into the product on the field, might even be supportive of such a scheme.
And heck, maybe just the discussion of adopting such a change would motivate the low performers to step up their game and try to win a few more games each season.
And, of course, Congress has an ace in its hand here, too: Major League Baseball operates under an antitrust exemption, allowing it to bypass certain labor rules that other business have to abide by.
Adding a requirement for relegation to the anti-trust exemption would, if nothing else, reduce the anti-trust behavior of Major League Baseball.
Paul Simon has a nice collection of songs he’s written over the years, but for most of them, the definitive version is the original - either recorded by himself, or with Simon & Garfunkel. There are quite a few covers of Paul Simon songs, but few are particularly noteworthy.
But when you get both Ray Charles and Willie Nelson - two musicians who have written a fair number of classics themselves - covering one of your songs, well, that grabs one’s attention. Throw in a gem of an interpretation from Karen Carpenter, and it’s all worth a listen.
Paul Simon first released “Still Crazy After All These Years” in 1975 on the album of the same name.
Bob James’ arrangement is (not surprisingly) jazzier than most of Simon’s other solo work, anchored by the electric piano of Barry Beckett (famed for his session work at his own Muscle Shoals studio) and Mike Brecker’s saxophone. But Simon’s voice is particularly thin on this session (particularly when compared to his vocal track on “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” from the same album and recorded at roughly the same time).
And Simon’s version of “Still Crazy” was buried by “50 Ways.” While the almost-novelty “50 Ways” topped the pop charts at No. 1, “Still Crazy” only just barely broke the Top 40 - hitting #40 on the dot.
Just four years later, when Karen Carpenter went into the studio to record her only solo album, she included “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
Sadly, interfamily disputes kept this recording from the public until 1996, 13 years after she passed of heart failure at 32.
Interestingly, Bob James - who arranged Simon’s recording - is credited with keyboards on Carpenter’s album as well, although Rob Mounsey wrote this arrangement. It’s slowed down from Simon’s version, more conversational. It’s a bit heavy on the strings, and the background singers can be intrusive. But Carpenter had one of the purest and most disciplined singing voices ever, and her delivery is sure-footed and confident.
While Ray Charles recorded his version for his 1993 release, “My World,” more than a decade after Carpenter recorded hers, his was released three years earlier.
While a world-renowned pianist, Ray doesn’t even play piano behind himself on this track - instead, Greg Phillinganes (who had played on Carpenter’s album!). Jeremy Lubbock’s arrangement is played at about the same tempo as Carpenter’s, but Charles digs deeper into the emotions of the lyrics on his vocal - laying out in agony where Carpenter more alluded the pain. The horns and strings are more restrained, leaving Charles’ vocals out front where they belong.
Willie Nelson’s version was featured in the 2000 Clint Eastwood film “Space Cowboys,” in an arrangement by Gil Goldstein.
Nelson is generally classified as a country singer, but that’s rather like dismissing Sinatra as a pop singer. Nelson has long tackled the Great American Songbook, as well as blues, and even participated with Wynton Marsalis and Norah Jones in a tribute to Ray Charles. He is possessed of a voice that is limited in range, ragged around the edges, but deeply expressive; he is possibly the most underrated singer of popular music of the last half century.
In Goldstein’s arrangement, Nelson sings at a slightly faster tempo that Charles or Carpenter, but is equally conversational. His vocal delivery tugs at the listener’s emotions without ever appearing to try to do so - his ability to remain restrained while plumbing the depths of the human heart is unparalleled.
I love all four of these versions, but it’s Willie’s I come back to over and again.
Charlie Recksieck of San Diego-based band The Bigfellas invited me to submit an entry to his band’s blog. I was honored and delighted to do so - offering whatever insights I could to local bands regarding the issue of cover art on albums.
I also had an interview with Bay Area singer Tia Caroll in the July/August issue of Living Blues magazine, as well as an obituary of Guitar Shorty and a review of the new release from Putumayo Records, “Blues Café.”