In Praise of Cockiness

The power of egotism was on my mind as I watched Louisiana State take down dynastic Clemson for an NCAA football national championship last week. There was an undercurrent of annoyance among the ESPN announcers about the attitude of the Bayou Bengals, a sense that LSU’s cockiness rubbed them the wrong way. This team, they said, expected to win more than anyone they’d ever seen, and they weren’t afraid to tell the world as much.

The exemplar of this brash expectation of victory, LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, just looks like the platonic ideal of an all-American boy, and he clearly knows it. His post-touchdown celebrations included a bit where he sized himself for a championship ring; he and his teammates earned the ire of the New Orleans police when they sucked down cigars in the bowels of the Superdome after the win.  He has a bit of a hotheaded streak, as evidenced when he had a momentary squabble with his head coach, the peerless Ed Orgeron. At one point, Burrow even egged on the LSU students through a banned chant about creative acts with part of a tiger’s anatomy. Decorum be damned: I ate it all up. It ain’t bragging if it’s true.

Watching Burrow’s ownership of college football this season made me stop to realize how much I delight in athletes who have that swag. Derek Jeter was perhaps less outwardly flashy than Burrow, but he knew how to quietly demonstrate his flair; his successor as the Yankee standard-bearer, Aaron Judge, has a hint of that too, as when he (rather prematurely) blasted ‘New York, New York’ at the Boston clubhouse in the 2018 playoffs. My bouncyball loyalty is to a Georgetown program that built its reputation on brashness, toughness, and unapologetic blackness under John Thompson, Jr., and has found a hint of it again (minus the blackness) in guard Mac McClung, who is the most entertaining Hoya in my time watching Georgetown hoops. (Now, if only he could play defense.) Even my Duluth East hockey teams, on which ego is so often subsumed in coach Mike Randolph’s machine, have tended to emerge as my favorites when they add in a dash of panache, whether that comes in the form of Garrett Worth’s sniper’s ego or the more poised flair of a Meirs Moore some years before.

I will always have a world of respect for the athletes who are sheer class and grace: a Mariano Rivera, a Roger Federer, an Andrés Iniesta. But as my gaze strays to the flashier stars, most of them in their teens or early 20s when they build this reputation, I can’t help but love every moment of it. This blog has done enough lamenting about lost youth lately, so I’ll linger here only to acknowledge the timeless joy that comes from fully owning a moment. These are the athletes who remind us that it is a game, even as they take it to its highest level, and there’s something refreshing in watching people who know they are good and revel in that fact.

My praise for the egotists of the world is not without limits: there is a fine line between cockiness and straight-up arrogance. The best of these stars know to confine their supreme self-confidence in realms in which they’ve earned it. With the press, Burrow comes off as a quiet, mild-mannered kid who’s slightly out of place, except when he takes time to make a comment that raises half a million dollars for the Athens, Ohio food bank or acknowledges the university dining hall staff in his postgame interview. Jeter, famously, never put a word out of place with the media and was a model of decency when in the public eye. There is an art to finding the self-certainty necessary to succeed in a high-pressure environment and still recognizing the larger world outside of the arena. Some people looked at Jeter and saw a façade; I looked at him and saw someone in complete command of his world, whatever the situation.

The underlying wisdom in a certain form of brashness is most apparent in sports but relevant anywhere. As I began my thirtieth year, I did away with the ten-part strategic life plan I’d written up at the start of the past few years. Not that I don’t have goals of sorts, including several that would be significant milestones; I just decided that those markers should be less central to who I am. Instead, I brought my focus back into the immediate: on to questions of how I carry myself day-to-day, distant aspirations set aside for a manner of living, a true belief in a line I’ve repeated many times in some version or another: that happiness is a byproduct of a life well-lived, and that success does not come through achievement of demonstrated goals but instead through immersion in a mindset in which one can take pride.

No one, whether an athlete or just some civilian, can live in dead-set certainty of purpose forever; at times, its attainment can limit one’s vision, and certain personalities are more in danger of it in excess than in its absence. But those moments when we achieve it can bring clarity for the long haul. That added dose of self-assurance can dispel anxiety when the moment calls for forging directly ahead, finding ways to reset nearly every day, repeating the central claim: this is who I am and what I stand for, and this is my escape from any albatrosses that may weigh me down. That certainty requires a certain self-confidence that can drift in to cockiness, and if it does, why is that such a bad thing? Sometimes we just need that level of belief.


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