PORTLAND -- The Knicks were in Phoenix on Friday, where college football fans were just starting to descend for Monday's BCS Championship game in Glendale, Ariz. There were memorabilia stands loaded with gear from both Oregon and Auburn. And the most ubiquitous face on billboards and placards and commercials?
Yes, Cam Newton, now a national champion. A hero. An inspiration. A dynamic athlete.
This is the same Cam Newton who has been grilled by the NCAA and the media that covers college football for allegations that his father during Cam's high school recruitment was asking colleges for six-figure payments as part of an agreement for his son to choose their school. He reportedly told one Mississippi State booster it would take about $100,000 to get Cam to sign a letter of intent. And that's obviously illegal.
And that infuriates Bill Walker. A hundred thousand dollars? According to CNBC's Darren Rovell, Auburn will likely easily clear $1 million off Newton alone this season, including sales of his jersey. Clearly Cecil Newton was undervaluing his kid's potential impact.
Two weeks ago, Walker blasted the NCAA "double-standard" on his Twitter page and went as far as calling the college game "slave labor" because players aren't allowed to share in the profits off their performance. He and I chatted more about this topic after a recent practice on this road trip.
"First they crucify him for saying that he broke rules," Walker said of Newton. "Now, in order to promote the [BCS] game, he's all over the TV. He's the face of the game. What is that? That's a contradiction, man. They preach one thing and then they do a whole other thing."
Walker paused a second and then added, "You know how many Cam Newton jerseys they're going to sell?"
The NCAA and the schools get that money. Newton doesn't get a penny and can't even sell whatever he does get out of the game. Terrelle Pryor, who sold his sportsmanship award from the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and his 2008 Big Ten championship ring to put some cash in his pocket, learned that lesson the hard way. The Ohio State QB was suspended for the first five games next season and was ordered to pay back the money he made off the sales of his own property.
Walker, who played two seasons of basketball at Kansas State, was outraged by the Pryor punishment.
"If he doesn't want to keep them, he doesn't want to keep them, you know what I mean?" Walker said. "It's not like he's doing anything illegal. He's not taking money from anybody. America's built on free enterprise and he's selling his own gear. And they penalized him for the first five games."
I tried to interject the standard reply to such rants, that these athletes are getting the ultimate benefit of a free education that, in some cases, is worth as much as $10,000 to $20,000 per year, depending on whether or not it is a public or private institution, so that evens things out a little bit.
"Oh does it?" Walker replied. "Well, picture this: Your whole schedule is made around basketball. Only time that you have dedicated to really doing some classwork is summer. You practice from 'yea-to-yea', study hall and then sleep. Classes in the morning, practice, workouts, whatever. You're dead tired.
"I remember having to drink Red Bulls just to stay up to do all my homework," he continued. "You know what I mean? Are you really getting an education like everybody else is? Because everybody else is going to school strictly focused on their education. They have a jump on you.
"So then they say, 'Oh you guys eat for free.' That's it! That's all we do, eat for free. You can't even wash your clothes . . . simple stuff like that. You can't get a job and they're not giving you a stipend or providing that stuff on campus for you. None of that stuff is provided for you."
But wait, I said, be honest. The big-time schools have people who hand you money all the time, right? That's been going on forever . . .
"No, no, no," Walker said, shaking his head at me. "The university warns everybody against that. They're hard on boosters; saying don't give the guys money. All the days of those bogus jobs, when guys got bogus jobs, is over. There's none of that anymore."
I recalled the early 1990s, when books such as "Raw Recruits" were published and outlined outrageous stories about recruiting violations and how cash, gifts and benefits were used to attract athletes to certain programs. Those were the days of phony "jobs" that players were given that were nothing more than fronts to give the players money and bogus classes -- the old Basketweaving 101 -- that kept players eligible.
So how do we resolve these problems? Obviously in this era of the mega-million bowl games and March Madness, there needs to be some radical thinking and radical changes made. College athletes should be allowed the same rights as someone who is a law student or a medical student or even a journalism student who works at a firm or a hospital or an internship in the summer. Let's allow a college player to be drafted but remain in college. Let them sign a contract, but only earn a capped signing bonus and then have the contract kick in the year they decide to come out. Let them play in the NBA Summer League for a stipend.
Let them get the education they need and yet still be able to afford to live the lifestyle they need to develop into their next career as professionals. Because isn't that what the college experience should be about? It's about education and developing as an adult.
I played Division II basketball, so I never experienced any of the things you heard about at the major college level. So as we completed our spirited conversation, I shrugged and told Billy the Kid he clearly came along too late in life.
"I definitely did," he said with a disgusted head shake. "I definitely did."