Let’s play a game. I’ll say the name of a professional athlete, and you tell me the first word you think of:

Ben Roethlisberger

Tiger Woods

Tim Tebow

Now, for the real magic. I’m going to go ahead and say the words that you immediately thought of were rapist, affair and Christian, respectively.

Thank you. I’ll be here all week.

Actually, this isn’t a display of psychic ability, but rather an illustration of personal branding. A personal brand is what your name means to people. When you thought of these people above, certain images – and inevitably, certain perceptions – came to mind. A personal brand can be positive or negative, but you’re ultimately responsible for how people see you.

Some of the greatest (and sometimes the worst) examples in personal branding are demonstrated in sports, and we can all learn a thing or two about managing our own brands from professional athletes.

In honor of the upcoming Super Bowl, here are five personal branding lessons from players in the National Football League:

Troy Palamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

While he’s definitely a hard-hitting freak of athletic nature, you probably know him for his hair. The hair has not only gotten him a pretty sweet endorsement with Head & Shoulders, but by leveraging the hair through a social media parody account (@TroysHair), Troy has been able to have control over the way people view him off the field.

Final Score: Don’t take yourself too seriously, and be known for something outside of your day job.

Chad Ochocinco, New England Patriots

Known for his flamboyance, Ochocinco is constantly named one of the NFL’s most disliked players. However, he’s very active in social media and is constantly engaging his fans. He’s not just responding to people day in and day out; he’s inviting fans to dinner, movies, you name it. He’s successfully created a community of more than three million followers. You can’t tell me that didn’t appeal to the Patriots last year when they knew all those people were going to have to buy another jersey once the ink dried on his contract.

Final Score: There will always be haters, but build a personal fan base of people who will support you no matter what.

Tim Tebow, Denver Broncos

As a Steelers fan, it pains me to include him, but you cannot talk about personal branding in the NFL and ignore him. While Tebow was successful as a college player, it was his loud commitment to his faith that pushed his personal brand forward. Tebow became the top-selling NFL jersey in the nation as a rookie – before he was even a starter. “Tebowing,” or praying on one knee, has swept the globe. Some have criticized him for being so vocal about his religious views, but everyone knows who he is, and everyone knows what he stands for. Not a bad reputation to have.

Final Score: Be true to your views, and stand for something.

Matt Spaeth, Chicago Bears

Matt who? Matt Spaeth. Spay-th. He’s a tight-end for the Chicago Bears, and it’s a travesty more people – women, especially – don’t know who he is. This is mainly due to the fact, at risk of sounding highly unprofessional, that he is smoking hot. However, Spaeth is seemingly a humble, down-to-earth guy, but he refuses to do anything to promote himself. Additionally, Spaeth has a presence on Facebook, but won’t engage with his community. These aren’t good strategies when you’re in an industry where an average career lasts less than five years.

Final Score: Don’t hop on the social media bandwagon if you’re not going to communicate.

Billy Cundiff, Baltimore Ravens

Poor guy. People are going to be talking about that botched kick at the end of the AFC Championship game for a while. Thank God he has an MBA. Seriously though, I empathize with kickers who miss, especially at a critical moment, because it’s all on them. But Cundiff is an example of the biggest lesson in personal branding: One misstep, and it’s all over.

Final Score: It just takes one mistake to blow your reputation. Never forget that.

At its core, a personal brand is what your name means to people. To me, this is best illustrated in professional sports. If you think of the big names – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James – certain images, and inevitably opinions, come to mind. They aren’t just athletes, they’re essentially corporations with multiple revenue streams, product lines, and even their own crises.

Originally published Feb 2, 2012 1:00:53 AM, updated July 28 2017

Topics:

Branding