How much does it matter to today’s pro athlete?

A great deal. Simply put, it means everything.

It is often the difference between a long-term contract, lucrative endorsement deals, multiple sponsorships, and post-career opportunities.

For those who say, “I don’t care what other people think of me,” you are risking long-term career suicide.

You should care. You need to care.

For those who say, “I don’t care what others think about me,” think again. Why? Because the “not caring” thing doesn’t work. Ultimately, you’re putting off those who can positively impact your career, and years later you will regret it. Unless of course, you think the following are good ideas:

1. Getting your a$$ handed to you in a celebrity boxing fight like Jose Canseco.

2. Justifying your behavior to Dr. Drew Pinsky in “Celebrity Rehab” or “Sober House” like Dennis Rodman.

3. Trying to find an NFL team to call home in the twilight of an otherwise great career (sans on and off-the-field behavior and attitude issues) like Terrell Owens.

4. Trashing your stepmom and your sport’s leadership in the wake of failed drug tests and alleged use of meth, like NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield.

5. Trolling around college bars and thinking you’re above the law like one 28-year old NFL quarterback in Pittsburgh and getting suspended for your actions when you could have been looking at jail time.

Please understand, this is not an indictment on the aforementioned individuals. These are all (and may still be) once proud individuals at the top of their game. They all experienced a tremendous fall from grace due to their actions and the perception of who they are. It has led to colossal damage to their reputations. A defiant attitude, arrogance, and insincerity decimates reputations and the images of all involved.

At some point, all of these individuals have or will complain about how they were misunderstood or how the perception of them doesn’t match the reality of who they are. Thanks to their actions, they are are all making their way through what we call “Reputation Rehab.”

This is a wake up call for those out there who still think that saying what they want, doing what they want, acting how they want, and treating the media and others how they want, is a good idea. It can easily be avoided if the mindset from the outset is set the right way.

Here are five (5) tips for athletes to help manage how they are perceived and their reputations:

1.  Talk with your agent, lawyer, representative, etc., and work with them on hiring a seasoned communications pro (or team of pros) and develop a strategic PR plan.

2.  Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. So make EVERY interaction count. This includes managing your online reputation, what you do “off-the-field,” meetings with sponsors and media interviews, public appearances, etc. Everything you do can and will be used against you in an endorsement deal or contract negotiation. So get it right. Everyone knows (unless you live under a rock) how social media has changed the way we do business, how news is reported, and how we communicate. If you think it, it doesn’t mean you should post it, tweet it, YouTube it, or Ustream it.

3.  Watch the ego and the entourage, treat others with respect, and act accordingly. Sponsors love nothing more than an athlete who is easy to work with, knows how to carry the sponsor’s message, is engaging, and doesn’t do questionable things or engage in otherwise, shall we say, high risk behavior. Teams and leagues have grown increasingly intolerant of behavior that violates personal conduct policies. The result? Suspensions, loss of pay, fines, shortened or terminated contracts, fan and media backlash, etc.

4. Prepare for the inevitable crisis by building the bank of goodwill, having a solid plan, and doing the right thing – all the time. When crisis hits, your ability to manage your message can make or break you. In the hours immediately following a crisis, your ability to respond strategically, honestly, and effectively will be the difference in how well you manage through it or end up on the “PR Fiascos in the Digital Age List” next to Tiger, BP, Mark McGwire, and others.

5. STOP saying you ”don’t care what people think about you” and start caring about how your name and reputation are being managed. If you don’t, plan on ending up in the Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens school of once proud All-Stars now in the land of baseball pariahs. You DON’T want to be there.

So if you’re thinking seriously about where you want to be when the cheering stops and the answer is the broadcast booth, front office, etc., understand that work starts NOW and everything you do matters.