×

Paying college players will ruin the game

Kain Colter, No. 2 of the Northwestern Wildcats, passes against the Syracuse Orange in September 2013 in Evanston, Ill.
Getty Images
Kain Colter, No. 2 of the Northwestern Wildcats, passes against the Syracuse Orange in September 2013 in Evanston, Ill.

We love our illusions. And for college sports fans, there may be no greater illusion than the myth that the athletes playing in the Final Four and the big bowl games are actual students. Deep down, and maybe not so deep down, most fans of big-time men's college sports programs know the athletes really aren't getting a great education. We know they're mostly acting as mercenaries using their college playing time as a chance to audition for a possible professional career, no matter how elusive that goal may be.

But the logical and fair argument that these athletes should be paid even while they remain in college in return for the revenues they generate for their schools has one fatal/paradoxical flaw: it will shatter the priceless illusion of the student-athlete and destroy a great deal of those revenues for good. It's the metaphorical killing of the goose that lays the golden egg.

The latest CNBCAll-America Economic Survey proves it. The poll shows that in the crucial demographic of wealthier males aged 50 and over, a whopping 32% would be less likely to watch college sports if the players were paid. And I actually think the real number is much higher and will grow more and more over time. The reason is because loyalty to Alma Mater and the personal connection fans have with their school's sports teams is still the prime source of support for major college athletics. Without that, college sports will probably survive, but they will suffer a major drop to the level of support, interest and publicity that minor league sports leagues deal with right now.

And there's the paradox. As a strong proponent of the free market, there's no doubt in my mind that the athletes who do the work that makes the big money for schools from Wisconsin to UNLV deserve to be paid in some way other than a scholarship for an education they're clearly not getting. But I also know that doing so would kill off a significant amount of those revenues.

I know this is the case, because I've been living the life of a college sports fan with no illusions for more than 25 years. That's because my favorite college sports teams play in the Ivy League, a conference that doesn't hand out athletic scholarships and thus grabs almost none of the spoils of the big money making college sports of football and men's basketball. I still love going to and watching those games in the Ivies, and I like that I'm watching real students play who are also taking the same rigorous courses I did three decades ago. But I know that I am in the minority.

Because I also don't deny that the quality of the contests usually pales in comparison to what you're going to see in the Big 10 or the ACC. The games are still competitive and fun, but attendance at Ivy football and basketball games is a small fraction of what you see in the big time conferences. And even though eliminating bogus athletic scholarships and recruiting only true student athletes would solve the problem for schools like Northwestern who are currently being sued by a group of football players trying to unionize, I know that's just not going to happen. Even if Northwestern loses its battle against the union, it will simply settle for the reduced revenues that result from the shattered illusion of the amateur college athlete and reassess the situation down the road. Not even elite academic schools like Northwestern and Duke will consider the Ivy model anytime soon.

And so we're stuck with two bad options. Northwestern and the NCAA could somehow stave off what seems like an inevitable push to pay college athletes, leaving those athletes unfairly compensated and fans in fantasy land... or we can see the players get paid, and watch college sports and its revenues take a serious hit.

Of course fans have a third option: they can join me and watch Ivy League sports. Believe me, there are plenty of good seats still available.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.