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Protect the players. Change the NCAA transfer rules.

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Competitiveness isn’t worth preserving at the expense of exploiting athletes.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-NCAA President Mark Emmert Press Conference Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The unique thing about this weblog is that we can write this column. We have proven that we care deeply and know intimately the world of mid-major basketball. This isn’t someone parachuting in from Lawrence or East Lansing or Los Angeles or Durham to belittle fanbases they know nothing about. This blog has worked, is working, and will work extremely hard to prove how important this corner of the basketball world is.

With that said, let me say this: it isn’t worth it.

I love covering the OVC and the WAC and the Atlantic Sun and so many other conferences most of the basketball literati don’t care to familiarize themselves with. These conferences consistently provide basketball that is just as exciting, engaging, and if you want to get sappy, soulful as anything the major conferences pump out. College basketball would not be the same without the programs that build out its lower ranks.

But it isn’t worth it.

The system of collegiate athletics is broken and rotten to its core. And, yes, that flows downhill to every conference in the country, regardless of coaches’ salaries or cable deals.

College basketball is built on the backs of players who are denied the rights that regular students enjoy. If I wanted to and if I were notable enough, Nike could have paid me to wear its apparel on the way to class and to the job I held while in college (something athletes can’t do). I certainly could have accepted a free meal from someone who gifted money to support the history department of my university.

If I wanted to, I could have left my current school to find a better school and situation for me and my family without penalty.

The NCAA appears to be flirting with the idea of eliminating the rule that requires transferring players to sit out a year before continuing their collegiate career.

I hope they do it.

Unsurprisingly, the corner of the basketball world that finds itself tethered closest to coaches and administrators is decrying this development as literally the worst thing to ever befall the world of collegiate athletics. That thing where the actual FBI actually arrested a handful of coaches on bribery charges evidently can’t hold a candle to this offense.

Their biggest point of concern? The effects that, as they like to call it, “free agency” would have on the world of mid-major basketball.

The coaches who have voiced their opinion echo the sentiment.

Here’s Southern Illinois head coach, Barry Hinson:

I’m being completely honest and serious. If the media doesn’t take hold of this right now, you can shut mid-major basketball and low-major basketball down. It’s over. That’s a strong quote, I stand by it, and I mean it. The coaches can’t do anything about this.

We are getting ready to be a farm club system…If you think these guys aren’t going to be contacted, you’re living in a world that has faeries. And I’m telling you right now Tinkerbelle ain’t in college basketball. If the media doesn’t join hands, specifically mid-major and low-major schools, we are going to end up with two divisions and you can just shut this down.

I can see why this topic gets Coach Hinson hot under the collar. Of course allowing players to pack their bags and leave without the penalty of sitting out a year would encourage further attrition from schools like Southern Illinois. That makes his job harder and, by extension, his job security less stable. And by extending that further, we see a world in which it is more difficult to build programs outside the major conferences that can pose a threat to the biggest, baddest boys on the block. That’s all true.

It also doesn’t matter, because it isn’t worth it.

Coach Hinson and the Southern Illinois athletic department are not the people who are most disadvantaged in this current collegiate athletics environment that stratifies the haves and have-nots of athletic departments.

It’s the players. It’s always been the players.

No amount of fun that we fans have by watching the little guys knock of the big guns in March is worth preserving a system in which the players are not given the respect they deserve.

Every single aspect of amateur athletics is designed to restrict the players and protect the universities and programs that employ them. It is a phenomenally unequal system in which conferences, administrators, and coaches get salaries, often phenomenally high ones (Hinson is the highest paid employee on the Carbondale campus), while the players get a scholarship that comes with rules that restrict them from certain employment or making any money based on their own likeness. The players have no way to bargain for more rights and the professional field in which they want to go into keeps them out of the market through an age requirement.

That is unequal.

It is more important to fix that problem than anything else.

Something probably has to give if the equality gap between players and everyone else is going to shrink. Those who think that making shifts to the current structure will inherently raise everyone’s fortunes are being pretty optimistic. But the current situation is so flatly unfair that any harm done to the competitive landscape is a secondary concern.

I could write about how a looser transfer market would actually help mid-major teams. I could point you to Nevada’s current roster or Grand Canyon’s current roster to make that point. But that shouldn’t matter to you because all that matters are. The. Players.

If Anthony Lamb knew that he could go and play for Florida and get consistent national exposure that would boost his draft stock, shouldn’t he be able to pursue that? Certainly you, the skeptic reader, would leap at any chance to significantly better your career aspirations. Don’t college basketball players deserve to have the same option?

And if you say the answer is no, let’s be honest with each other about what you’re saying: you don’t care about the player himself and how his current situation is detrimental to his future because you think your team winning is more important.

That’s selfish. And it isn’t worth it.