If you're an elite athlete at any level, you're already playing with house money when it comes to stoking the perception that you're cool. You're capable of doing things that the majority of mankind simply cannot, so athletic talent is always a plus, never a minus.
So, when that capability leads to a pro career in sports and all the lifestyle changes and pressures that come with it, an athlete can sit on those chips and play it safe or try for something bigger and better.
Why take the risk? Seizing the moment and taking advantage of the access money and fame gives them can transform an athlete into a superstar, news maker and trend setter.
Joe Namath and Walt Clyde Frazier didn't help set the standard for the "cool athlete" through pleas for privacy and meek interviews. They lived life, offered candid thoughts and fully leveraged their charismatic swagger.
The downside is that absent those rare, innate traits that make "cool" effortless for a lucky few, any attempt to try to elevate their status is riddled with far more pitfalls than opportunities.
This is because being cool is largely determined by the perception that it's natural and effortless. It doesn't mean there aren't practical strategies, contrived or not, for an athlete to enhance their own standing; with varying results.
These are things that athletes do to look cool.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning.
The fashion world may be mercilessly fickle when it comes to the runway, but commercial clothing lines depend on brand recognition and smart marketing.
Stars like footballer David Beckham and women's tennis pro Venus Williams have partnered with major retailers like H&M to sell apparel inspired by their celebrity.
When it comes to cool, it's a win-win proposition. If they're successful, the venture grows their legend beyond the sport. If the line fails, no one was compelled to wear their weird clothes and probably paid little attention to the effort itself.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Losing
Home ownership is one of those uniquely American ideals that has long defined success. The bigger the house, the more you're worth—clearly, you look cooler pulling out of the driveway of a 10-bedroom mansion than a modest Cape Cod.
So, what better way to pump up your rep than mortgaging the kind of extravagant abode that includes a grotto? The problem is that even if you can truly afford it, fans (who care at all) think you're a jerk and someone else in your sport will buy an even bigger one.
Worse yet, no career is more rife with uncertainty than pro athletics. Injuries, franchise instability, personal foibles, poor decision-making or just pure dumb luck can turn a big contract into a long-gone signing bonus. There's nothing cool about getting sued by a bank foreclosing on your home.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Losing.
Few activities have the potential to undermine hard-earned cred more quickly and catastrophically than making music when it's not what you do. There's a reason the Dropkick Murphys comfortably blast from Fenway Park's PA system rather than sit in the bullpen—they're musicians.
History is littered with ill-advised forays into the music industry by men and women who are really, really good at doing something other than singing or noodling on a guitar.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Losing.
Nothing can transform the public perception of a star athlete like an adorable pet. Men and women who are singularly associated with gritty, physical competition can scramble presumptions and attitudes by tweeting a single image of their gleeful face attacked by a wriggling puppy.
However, when athletes show off wild animals they call "pets"—animals that look insane in a house, or the Everglades or Serengeti—it raises a million questions. Alligators aren't cool; they're angry. Exotic animals set the stage for future episodes of Fatal Attractions.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Depends
Typically, a press conference or locker-room interview involves a player cautiously responding to questions from the media with words that initially sound like information, but over time, vaporize into the ether. It's coach speak, Bill Belichick's gray-scale rhetoric.
So when an athlete actually says something, reporters rejoice because it gives them copy, and coaches cringe because anything with meaning could be interpreted as intelligence...or insult.
When they turn the microphone into a bullhorn for their opinions—an outlet for their emotions—it fits their identity and shows them to be candid and compelling. Think Metta World Peace (on any given day) or Tim Tebow's fiery rant after Florida lost to Ole Miss in 2008. It certainly can be cool.
However, using the media as a platform can very easily haunt not only a player's career, but his teammates. Remember Freddy Mitchell "thanking" his hands or Wes Welker's jab at Rex Ryan's alleged foot issues.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Depends
People tend to gravitate toward those individuals who share a common bond, whether it's a neighborhood, hobby, talent or other attribute that creates an inherent connection.
Therefore, it's not surprising that men and women who have publicists, millions of dollars, bodyguards and the general benefits of fame tend to form friendships.
Hanging out with celebrities from the music and film industries certainly has an upside—if an athlete is socializing with someone who has firmly established their coolness, then their exploits have an Ocean's Eleven, hip ensemble flavor. Also, Matthew McConaughey is an instant upgrade.
The downside? Packing your entourage with a hodge-podge group of future has-beens, or people who dwarf your celebrity, makes you look desperate...or weird.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning
Sticking it to "The Man" is a proven method for increasing your cool factor. The commissioner, boss or any person who acts as judge, jury and executioner of you and your colleagues' livelihood is the perfect foil.
Vocal capitulation to the powers that be is nearly tantamount to treason, so riffing on how much the new rules violate the spirit of the game or how the commish is unjustly targeting your whistle-to-whistle play is a proven formula.
There is always a small risk that a player takes it too far—like former Steeler James Harrison—but the right kind of criticism is more likely to resonate with a sympathetic audience. In the case of the Saints' Jonathan Vilma, the athlete not only wins the battle of public opinion, but the law as well.
And nothing is cooler than being right.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning
There are few sports cliches more pervasive than the one where an embattled star gets asked about criticism and he or she responds, "I don't listen to my critics." Plenty of variations exist—"listen to" is replaced by "care about," or critics are described as haters.
The reason it persists is that it works, no matter how unbelievable the statement is. We all know that athletes listen to their critics. Maybe they think the critics are wrong, or stop far short of wallpapering their home with every biting article, but they hear it.
But, what good would it do for an athlete to wholeheartedly agree or freak out in response? That's not cool. Pretending to be above the haters and letting your play do the talking is what winners do.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning. Big time.
An athlete can't go wrong when they invent a signature celebration dance or some other ritual. It makes fans want to watch and rivals want to imitate. Whether it's planned ahead of time or born from an impromptu moment of triumph, the signature celebration dance is awesome.
William "The Refrigerator" Perry's end-zone jig in Super Bowl XX, Ickey Woods' "Ickey Shuffle," LeBron James' chalk toss, Victor Cruz's salsa dance—the list goes on and on, but no one on it looked less cool for doing it. The skill level of the dance moves starts at hilariously bad and tops out at purely badass.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Losing. An awful, awful idea.
Before Bengals cornerback Adam "Pac-Man" Jones infamously drew national media attention to the practice of "making it rain," it was a terrible idea. In case you don't know, a person "makes it rain" by tossing wads of cash off a stage or other elevated area of a night club onto the revelers below.
So, "making it rain"shows you have so much money that you can carelessly toss it onto strangers while demonstrating the sadistic benevolence of giving away your cash via wild melee.
The aspiring cool would be stupid not to try it. And by stupid not to try, I mean guaranteed to make people think you're reckless at best, horrible at worst.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning, obviously.
This is a no-brainer. Pro athletes start their careers with big contracts (or at least a very nice salary) and take residence in a world of media exposure—and all the benefits that come with it. One of the prime benefits of this new-found celebrity and prestige is access to beautiful models.
Why not date a model? An athlete may look like they're over-reaching when hand-in-hand with a model, but it doesn't make them less cool. If it doesn't work out, no cache is lost; rather, a new opportunity to date a different model is created.
There's one caveat: Marrying a model can cut both ways. Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen look like a celestial entity designed to produce beautiful human beings and make millions of dollars. Tiger Woods, however, lost big—in both his rep and wallet—when his marriage to model Elin Nordegren fell apart in a very uncool, public way.
Winning or Losing Strategy: TBD.
Twitter is cool because it allows star athletes and other celebrities to interact with the public in a way that's unprecedented. Not only can they personally communicate with fans, other athletes and the media, but they can share every day moments in their life as well as their thoughts.
What isn't cool is when an athlete uses Twitter to troll another person—including fans—offer up offensive/freaky thoughts, fish for compliments or engage in a petty back-and-forth with a stranger (or worse, someone close to them).
However, athletes are also exposed to a level of random bile enabled by the same social media platform and have struck back in awesome fashion.
It's simply too soon to determine whether it's a winning strategy or not.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Winning
People value sincerity. In the United States, our culture has traditionally placed a premium on authenticity and demonized the disingenuous. We sneer at hair plugs, praise aging gracefully and snicker at brows frozen in that Botox stare.
When a famous athlete has a clearly noticeable quirk—of their appearance, in their personality, etc.—there is no surer way to draw unfair scrutiny than conspicuous attempts to hide or eliminate it. But, when an athlete embraces it, they turn a potential negative into a positive.
That's what cool is: unfettered living.
New Orleans Hornet Anthony Davis turned a distracting uni-brow into a beloved part of his identity. Imagine if he shaved it once the national spotlight was squarely affixed on his stellar 2011-12 sophomore campaign?
Winning or Losing Strategy: Losing (but also losing relevance).
Few pop-culture conventions age more horribly than the music video. The song may stand the test of time, but the images and visual concepts are almost certainly doomed to mockery. Even Bon Jovi knew when to move on.
It's understandable why star athletes would jump on the chance to mildly dance, bob their head around and look aloof or just kind of be there in a music video—often the artist is a rising star, a friend or both. It is, by all appearances, a symbiotic relationship.
The problem? If any industry recycles their stars faster than the major sports leagues, it's the music industry. That rising star is likely going to become a fallen star.
The worst-case scenario for an athlete cameo in a music video is that both the video and song are destined for the pop culture dustbin—or incinerator. Darius Rucker is a nice guy, but he'll never make Dan Marino cooler. It's backwards.
However, with each passing year, the music video moves closer to extinction, and with it, the danger of an athlete appearing in one.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Toss Up
This is a situation where the outcome is as dependent on the athlete's personality and existing perception as much as it is on the story they're trying to tell. It's natural for most people to want to be seen as the sum of their parts instead of being a mere sum.
While plenty of stars and under-the-radar athletes have happily finished their careers without ever making life outside sports a part of their public persona (at least until the posthumous tell-all), others have proactively reached out to the media and public to share their "other side."
Sometimes, learning about an athlete's interests, lifestyle and/or family enhances their standing—makes their story more compelling. A great example is former NFL star LaDainian Tomlison's ancestral roots in Texas, which date back to the pre-Civil War era and still reflect a historic divide.
When it doesn't work at all is when revealing the "other side" reinforces all the negative perceptions surrounding an athlete. Retired NHL agitator Sean Avery promoted his love of fashion to the extent of filming a reality show following his widely publicized internship at Vogue magazine.
His passion didn't compel his detractors to take a second look; it threw gasoline on the fire.
Winning or Losing Strategy: Disaster wrapped in tragedy, then televised on E!.
Dating Kim Kardashian is like a demented right of passage, one that spits you out worse for wear and wondering why you didn't heed the haunting wails of souls she's already devoured.
While relatively few stars from the NFL, pro soccer and the NBA have succumbed to the Kardashian trap—enough have to make it a trend—the damage has gotten progressively worse with each high-profile relationship.
Running back Reggie Bush kicked things off in 2007, and by the time the New Jersey Nets' Kris Humphries was violently extruded through her life/reality show gauntlet—divorced and humiliated—any future athlete who dare test those fleshy waters will be subject to the law of fool me once shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me and future generations of my family.
Kim Kardashian feeds on the energy of those around her. Sshe extracts every atom of coolness and all other elements that make you who you are. Then they're smelted into fodder for putrid self-promotion and dozens of empty ventures that generate a few more dollars for the Kardashian Empire.
Few relationships are a sure-fire path to looking cool—Aubrey Plaza being a possible exception—but there is one woman who is a sure-fire path to looking bad...real bad...at your expense: Kim Kardashian.