The hottest topic in College Sports these days is not recruiting like it is typically. It’s not coaching changes, it’s not scheduling, it’s not transfers or the fast-approaching college football season, and its “radically new” proposed playoff format that may or may not show up in the not-so-distant future.

It’s Name, Image, and Likeness.

Who’s making what money, from where, and how. The University of Miami Football team will earn $600 a month from an MMA gym just for being on the team. The University of Michigan football team will be selling jerseys with their names on them. Barstool Sports is recruiting athletes to represent and facilitate corporate partnerships across all sports.

It’s all about the money these days. Which, in all honesty, is probably an overcorrection for multiple generations of exploitation of collegiate athletes. Eventually, it will all die down and become the norm, and the news won’t be so interesting. The transactional nature of College Athletics that’s been hiding in the shadows will be public and entirely less provocative.

But for some, including one Saint Louis University Billiken Men’s Basketball player, the opportunity to monetize one’s identity is one he is trying to parlay into helping his community.

Fred Thatch Jr is now the elder statesman on the Billikens Men’s Basketball team. Going into his fourth season in Mid-Town, he is now the lone guy left from the most recent A-10 championship and NCAA tournament appearance. He was also the first Billiken to tangibly and realistically take advantage of his ability to use his NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) rights.

He did so by organizing and promoting a Basketball Camp he will be putting on in his hometown of Sikeston, Missouri, in August. A camp for students in 3rd to 8th grades to come out and get basketball, in addition to life, instruction from the hometown basketball hero plus a handful of his family and friends.

Not a huge marketing deal, or some sort of T-Shirt sale, but a self-run business that he (with the help of his mother and father) is looking to facilitate to give back to his community.

Mar 21, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Saint Louis Billikens guard Fred Thatch Jr. (20) shoots the basketball during practice before the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at SAP Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Bootheel region of Missouri, home to Fred’s hometown of Sikeston, is widely known to be one of, if not the most, impoverished areas in the state. Primarily an agricultural growing destination, the region does not enjoy the Urban sprawl much of the northern metropolis’ has provided. Leading to very little tourism and a lack of financial influx. Making expenditures for things like basketball waning. A fact that Fred knows all too well and sticking to his word on the mission of community assistance and giving back, he has already tweeted, “If any kid has financial problems and cannot pay the full $100, email me… I want to make sure EVERYBODY has an opportunity to grow as a human being and basketball player.”

“I just really want to give Bootheel Kids opportunity just to play division one basketball or just really set them up for the future.” Fred explains as his motivation for putting on the camp. “It’s just me trying to give back because, like, I wish guys like Otto (Porter Jr, a fellow Sikeston native & NBA player) and like just different people who experienced D1 basketball or even high-level colleges like D2, but if you’re a high-level player, and you have experienced, I wish when I was young, I could have went to a couple camps from guys like them.”

“I thought maybe this camp would be kind of like a free trial maybe to like see would it be something worth doing, like, how many kids really want to get help, and get to know the different things as far as basketball on and off the court that can help them succeed. Even as far as, at least, getting offered to any college basketball, or football, or just team that you want to go to.”

At the moment, Fred has 14 youngsters registered and paid for the two-day event in August and hopes to get as many as 20 signed up and confirmed before the end of signups. But to him, even just one would have been a success.

While Fred is charging $100 a camper, it’s abundantly clear the prime motivation in putting on this event is not to make money. Fred will essentially be volunteering his time to put on this event; all proceeds from the event will secure gym space and get T-Shirts for those who attend. Effectively, charging money only to avoid personal debt.

“I just want kids to really just take advantage of the opportunity. Yeah, I’m charging but I have to charge…I didn’t really want to try to rip anybody off. But at the same time, I don’t want to spend too much of my own money because I don’t really have that much.”

The primary mission Thatch is looking to teach is the value that basketball, or athletics as a whole, can provide to those who may not have the privileges or resources that other areas or those with more financial means may have provided. This lesson in motivation is multifaceted, though.

It starts with the camp (or potentially camps) he’s putting on. Looking to preach that college athletics of all shapes and sizes can provide outlets for education that might not be there without the athletic opportunity. After years of hard work, Fred has now graduated with his bachelor’s degree. He is already working on his MBA despite being what would only be a Senior on a traditional four-year path. And, he is hoping to be finished that degree by the end of next summer. An educational opportunity that will help set him up for the future and likely would not have been possible without basketball, by his own admission.

“You know, when you’re young, everybody wants to say, ‘Oh, I want to go to the NBA.’ ‘Oh, I want to do this.’ But if we’re being honest, there’s only a certain amount of people that can play the NBA. If you want to talk about overseas? Okay, there’s definitely like this a lot of jobs overseas for basketball players. But the thing is, though, you can get an education out of this for free. You don’t have to pay anything back. And that’s a blessing.”

“My parents don’t have to worry about paying for my education. I’m basically sending myself to college. And that’s a blessing on my parents and on me and my future, because I feel like I’m already ahead of the game. A lot of people go to college, they have to pay a lot of debt, and this and that. But when you play a Division One sport, and you get that offer, it’s the greatest blessing. I mean, like, a lot of people don’t realize that.”
“But if you get educated you can go a fair way in life. If you take that degree, along with Division One athletics and the work and the sacrifices we make, you can go a long way in life. And I just really want kids to know that like, you might not be the best now. But the goal is, by the time you graduate high school, you got a Division One, Division Two, Division Three, scholarship somewhere, just to allow yourself to be already ahead of others, and to really change your life.”

“And I’m just playing basketball, I’m doing the thing that I love that I’ve been loving my whole life. And it’s allowing me to get a degree. I’m just trying to teach, don’t let basketball use you, you got to use basketball.”

Thatch’s situation will allow him to continue to practice what he preaches. He’s currently getting his MBA, but he casually let slip that he’s considered getting his Ph.D. in the future. Though, he does maintain that he prefers to live “within the moment.” Considering the fact that the now 4th year Billiken has three years of eligibility left to play basketball due to Covid and a waiver from his sophomore season, that’s a goal he could actually accomplish, all (or mostly all) while on scholarship.

Name, Image, and Likeness legislation was not precisely focused on opportunities like these. But the ability to “market” himself has allowed Fred to create positive change in his community that would have been risky to do otherwise. He was always a mentor and advocate, but now he can have a more hands-on approach and potentially build for the future now, while his name is (potentially) most valuable.

What will the future hold, though, for Fred? If this “trial run” of a camp succeeds, what would be the next step? The MBA student is already on top of that:

“I’ve been talking to my parents for a while about trying to open up a gym, like build a gym, which is not working yet, but we’re gunna try to get on it. We’re gunna try to build a gym for basically like everybody that’s in like the Bootheel area. Bootheel kids really don’t have the opportunity that like a lot of city people have. The school high school is really off limits to just ordinary, like normal people. So, really the YMCA and outside unless you have connections are really like the only two places that you can go to work on your game. So, I just want to give people more opportunities and this is moving in that direction to help the kids out.”