A role model is defined as “a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people.” Athletes comprise most of the role model community in today’s day in age, based on their popularity in our culture. Some athletes reject the idea that they have any influence on others, while others fully embrace it.
NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley has strongly opposed the idea of sports figures being role models to young people. Sir Charles famously starred in a Nike ad declaring “I am not a role model”, and encouraging parents to raise their own kids. When explaining himself, Barkley said that by telling children that they should look up to athletes is like "telling kids to look up to someone they can't become, because not many people can be like we are.”
While Barkley may be right in the fact that not many people can become an elite athletes, that doesn’t mean that people can’t look up to the values that those athletes represent. The ironic part of Barkley’s campaign is that despite renouncing his status as a role model, he inspired countless kids to become successful basketball players.
Today we will be taking a look at some of the athletes who have become role models to people everywhere, sometimes unbeknownst to themselves. This list will only contain current athletes, which means that the role model staples of Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, and Kurt Warner will not be on this list. Let us know your opinion, and sound off in the comments below if we forgot anyone.
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15 John Wall
In 2010 the Washington Wizards selected John Wall with the first overall pick of the NBA Draft. The point guard was charged to bring some excitement to the D.C. team, and did immediately with his great game, and entertaining pre-game dances. Wall makes this list however based on his willingness to expose his heart in front of the public. Most athletes have so many walls built up around them, that you may see emotion after a loss, but not anywhere else.
Wall on many occasions has bared his soul in front of cameras, showing fans that it is okay to be thankful for what you have. Wall broke down in tears while expressing his pride for his younger sister finishing college, stopping the press conference to compose himself. His compassion has also been shown to the Washington community by donating over $1 million to the urban community through his charity.
14 Cristiano Ronaldo
Often misrepresented as a diva, Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid is a great role model for people to look up to. The footballer is one of the best athletes in the world, and is constantly trying to improve upon his craft. Unfortunately his drive to be the best is portrayed as selfishness, but that claim is far from the truth.
Ronaldo is one of the most giving athletes in the world, building schools on the Gaza Strip, rebuilding after earthquakes, donating entire wings to hospitals, and paying for patients to test experimental drugs for cancer. In fact Ronaldo was asked by a family to donate a jersey and shoes, so that they could auction it to pay for their child’s surgery. Ronaldo did send the jersey and shoes...and also a check to pay for the entire operation. The guy even refuses to get tattoos, because he wants to donate blood without fear of cross contamination.
13 Jimmie Johnson
The blue number 48 has been dominating the sport of competitive racing for about eight years now. Jimmie Johnson is only one Sprint Cup Championship behind tying both Richard Petty, and Dale Earnhardt Sr., and may do it in a shorter span of time than both men.
The noteworthy part of Johnson’s career, is his incredible humility and everyman beginnings. Johnson grew up in a working class neighborhood, and was able to become the best driver in NASCAR. Since becoming a professional driver, Johnson has been able to raise over $7.7 million for communities and families in need. Many NASCAR fans don’t like him, desperately digging to find a problem with the driver; Johnson handles all the criticisms with class and continues to be a great example in sports.
12 Serena Williams
Serena Williams is a perfect role model for women all over the world. She has used her incredible drive, to propel her into being an 18 time Grand Slam Champion in tennis. It’s important to note that Williams inspires girls without even trying, by showing how hard work can earn you anything you want. Along with her her tennis career, Williams is an actress, fashion mogul, equipment spokeswoman, philanthropist, and part owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
11 John Cena
John Cena is polarizing to say the least, but no matter how you feel about the WWE Superstar the general consensus is that he is a great role model. Everytime he is on television, he plays the role of a superhero for children, teaching them to stand up for their beliefs, and to never give up. Cena doesn’t just preach his positivity on screen, he actually goes and visits kids, most famously having done over 400 Make-A-Wish appearances for sick and terminal children.
10 George St.Pierre
In any type of combative sport there is a level of self confidence that a fighter needs in order to succeed. Most fighters cross the line and become jerks, whose egos outweigh their accomplishments, but George St.Pierre is not one of those fighters.
GSP is an MMA warrior who has introduced humility into the sport, instead of humiliation. The former UFC Welterweight Champion has never spoken badly about an opponent, and showed respect to the sport by carrying himself as a professional. St. Pierre also made it a point to show young fighters that you don’t need to be on steroids to succeed in fighting, by openly taking drug tests while training for title fights.
9 Tim Tebow
Of course Tim Tebow was going to be on this list, how could he not? Despite all of the Tebowing memes and general hating on the guy, no one could ever question his character. Tebow at one point had the entire world watching him, waiting for him to crack under the pressure of being a self proclaimed role model and to his credit he never did.
Tebow hasn’t been an active player in the NFL for the past two years, but has kept training in hopes of rejoining professional football. His journey culminated in being signed by the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. The only thing that Tebow has devoted his life to more than football, is helping others. He has gone to Africa countless times as a missionary, and has helped countless children through his “Tim Tebow Foundation”. He isn’t just a great athlete to look up to, Tebow is a great person to aspire to be.
8 Amy Purdy
Amy Purdy’s story crosses gender lines, and is an inspiration to all people who have ever had to overcome an obstacle. Purdy lost both of her legs (below the knee) in 1999 after contracting meningitis, and her chances of living were under 2%. Purdy was able to recover, and not only learn to walk again, but also to snowboard professionally. She actually was so good at the sport that she took home a gold medal in 2014 at the Paralympic Winter Games.
Purdy was covered in snowboarding gear during the Paralympics, but bared her legs insecurities, and confidence by joining Dancing With The Stars in 2014. The competitor showed that having a physical ailment doesn’t have to hold you back, coming in second place in the competition, and receiving amazing scores throughout the season.
7 Russell Wilson
The Super Bowl XLVIII Champion Seattle Seahawks were led by a selfless quarterback named Russell Wilson; you may have heard of him. Despite his scrappy nature on the field, Wilson is a devout Christian, who believes that it is his duty to help people. Whether you are religious or not, the fact that an NFL quarterback genuinely enjoys helping people is inspirational.
Wilson doesn't go for the glory off the field, but is recognized due to his celebrity status while giving back to the community. The QB has routinely visited a local children’s hospital every Tuesday since becoming an NFL player, and also has been outed as giving up first class seats to armed forces veterans.
Side note: If you want a comparison of how Russell stacks up to the typical athlete, look up the Instagram side by side comparison of his and 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s free time antics.
6 Danica Patrick
While many sports have had the glass ceiling shattered, some have remained in the back of the pack. Until recently NASCAR (and racing in general) was trailing all of the other major sports, with no defined place for women to race. To the credit of NASCAR, instead of having a different league for women to compete in, they have always had an open door for the ladies to join the Cup Series. The problem is that the women who actually made it to the big races are few and far between.
In February of 2010, Danica Patrick became only the sixth woman to participate in NASCAR races. In 2013, Patrick beat all expectations and became the first woman to win a pole position in a Sprint Cup Race. Although she has yet to win a major race, Patrick is continuing to defy the odds, by consistently placing in races throughout the season.
Some have criticized Patrick for being more a bikini model than a role model, but these claims are irresponsible. By downplaying Patrick's accomplishments, they are also downplaying the drive in all little girls around the world to attempt something that they are told is just for boys.
5 Roger Federer
Named the Laurus Sportsman of the Year for four straight years, Roger Federer isn't just one of the best tennis players of all time, but he exhibits everything you want in an athlete. Federer has 17 Grand Slam titles, but his work off the court is just as impressive. He was named a Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF in 2006 and is involved in several other charities. Federer has also helped victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti Earthquake.
Federer has always handled himself with class.
4 Larry Fitzgerald
Larry Fitzgerald is a 6-foot-3, 218 pound force of nature for the Arizona Cardinals. With his commanding presence, and all star status it would be typical to assume that Fitzgerald is a diva, reminiscent of a Terrell Owens. However Fitzgerald is far from the typical NFL wide receiver, and is universally recognized for his humble nature.
Fitzgerald has been recorded as repeatedly being the first player on the field, and the last to leave, attempting to cement his status as "Sticky Fingers". His work ethic carries over to the rest of the roster, his former head coach Ken Whisenhunt being quoted as saying “he sets the standard” when referring to Fitzgerald. The Pro-Bowler recognizes that he is a role model to young people, and fully accepts the role as his responsibility. He commented on his this saying:
“I see all the 11's out there and I want to make sure I set a good example for young people. I want to let them know it's not all about football — you have to be a good citizen and give back to people less fortunate.”
3 Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw is currently the highest paid player in baseball, topping the salary list for the first time in his career. Whereas some would celebrate this accomplishment by buying a new car or house, Kershaw has other plans. The three time Cy Young winner plans on using some of his new money to help fund his charity “Kershaw’s Challenge”. The charity provides supplies and support to African orphans, by the way of an orphanage that Kershaw and his wife built in 2011.
2 T-1. Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan is the a one of a kind leader, becoming a NBA legend that everyone seems to forget about. “The Big Fundamental” has led his team to an impressive five championships, and in the process has become one of the most decorated players in NBA history.
Aside from all of his accolades, Duncan has proven that he is the ultimate role model for anyone to look up to. His character is held in the highest regard by his organization, and fans alike. Duncan is not driven by ego, and will applaud a pair of teammates for a great play on the floor, whether he was involved or not.
The reigning Finals MVP has also never wavered in his loyalty to his organization, resigning his contract with no big to do unlike other players in the past. Duncan has exhibited perseverance, and diligence for over 18 years, never taking a play off, and always doing his best.
Duncan also has raised thousands of dollars for charity, and through his foundation (aptly named “the Tim Duncan Foundation”) has raised awareness for various diseases, and encouraged healthy habits for teens.
1 T-1. Peyton Manning
Peyton Manning is a very visible personality in the sports world, with dozens of endorsements, a few MVPs and a Lombardi Trophy all on the resume. As amazing as Manning is behind center, he is equally heralded for his integrity. Manning famously turned down an extra $1.4 million per year when he signed with the Broncos, with the rationale that he “didn’t deserve it”.
Despite turning down extra Broncos money, Manning has donated over $6.5 million to at risk youth over his career. “The Sheriff” actually did so much for the children's hospital at St. Vincent's in Indianapolis, that they named it after him in 2007.
Aside from all of the charity, Manning is a goofy average joe, that is completely relatable. His competitive nature is evident on the field, but unlike a player like Tom Brady, Manning feels totally comfortable making fun of himself. He often uses this approach to widen his audience, and is able to spread his good will further.
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