No matter what category of celebrity, famous people's private lives are under higher scrutiny than the rest of us. For instance, if a construction worker gets caught drunk driving and goes on an antisemitic rant in front of a cop, there may be a fine, possible jail time and some personal embarrassment, but life will likely go on for such a poor chap. That was not the case for Mel Gibson, who may not have lost it all (not even close), but his reputation was significantly tarnished.
With a film star, musician, athlete, or any other celebrity, everything is on another level of publicity. Do something right and your name will be in the papers, with fans singing your praises and critics temporarily admitting your merits. Unfortunately the opposite is true of negative press and people, whether fans or critics, are notoriously fickle
A hockey or baseball player gets a DUI and the jokes will be made, but the NBA and NFL are the most regularly hit with news of the "athlete arrest" nature. It has reached the point where the NFL is sometimes called the "National Felons League" by critics and fans alike. It's not that funny, but a ton of middle aged people on Facebook seem to think so. With that said, in the world of sports, fans and journalists alike seem to forget that athletes are just people. Like any other group, those who do terrible things are automatically spoken of more than their non-criminal counterparts. We also forget that members of American congress have higher rates of arrest. It's true.
In contrast to what the mainstream media want people talking about, most athletes are fairly normal and not in any way deviant. Athletes shouldn't have to be role models but lazy parents want someone to blame for their insolent, foulmouthed offspring. Nonetheless, here are the top twenty athletes (with a healthy mix of retired and current competitors) who are outstanding role models.
20 Mike Modano
Drafted by the Minnesota North Stars (remember them?) back in the late 1980s, Mike Modano played for over 20 years and remains the all time points leader among American NHL players. A consummate professional, Modano was a strong leader whose confidence was obvious but never arrogant or offensive in any way. Since his retirement from the game, he has championed numerous causes as the founder of the Mike Modano Foundation, which raises awareness from everything from the Wounded Warrior Project to child protection initiatives.
19 Ronda Rousey
There should be some clarification here, as role models go, Ronda Rousey has a foul mouth, but given everything else about her, that can be forgiven. She is all business and when that foul mouth comes out, it is generally in response to another fighter disrespecting her (Miesha Tate started it). Her attitude is that of a true champion and while some call her a bully, she's the best and she knows it. In terms of having pride in oneself and projecting confidence, Ronda Rousey is a woman to whom anyone can look up.
18 Richard Sherman
Much like Rousey, Richard Sherman had a very notable outburst that tarnished his reputation to some extent. With that said, those who saw him approach Michael Crabtree before that outburst, you know it was a reaction to a snubbed handshake. Sherman is an intelligent man, who works harder than almost anyone else in the league. He may run his mouth from time to time, but his work ethic, intelligence, in conjunction with his education (he started a master's degree before leaving Stanford) make him someone to admire. On top of all that, he has heart, as proven by his playing in the Super Bowl through the pain of a serious elbow injury suffered in the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers.
17 Serena and Venus Williams
These tennis playing sisters are probably the most dominant athletic sibling duo in the history of sports. Maybe it's Peyton and Eli Manning or Maurice and Henri Richard, but regardless of specific rankings, just to be considered among these greats is an honor. They are first and third on the all time tennis money list (Maria Sharapova is second) and have won tournaments as singles and as a doubles team. They are respectful and classy on and off the court (apart from the occasional temper tantrum) and both have entrepreneurial and charitable interests in their off-court lives.
16 Cal Ripken Jr.
With 21 years in Major League Baseball under his belt, Cal Ripken Jr. was in nineteen All-Star games, won a world series and played 2,632 consecutive games; which is one of those records that will likely never been broken. This is an amazing mix of toughness and work ethic to play with such consistency.
Throughout his career he was known as a great, sportsmanlike competitor who was also an excellent family man and charity supporter, as he was one of the key founders of Athletes for Hope.
15 Chris Weidman
The current Middleweight Champion of the UFC, Chris Weidman defeated Anderson Silva twice in 2013 and has dominated veterans Lyoto Machida and Vitor Belfort since. Through it all, he has maintained a stoic confidence and respectful aggression in his interviews and interactions with other fighters. If you don't like him yet, he volunteered his time after hurricane Sandy to hep raise funds to rebuild victims' homes.
14 Abby Wambach
For those of you who know women's soccer, I don't have to tell you who Abby Wambach is and why you should care. For those who don't, she's the best; not only the highest scoring American female soccer player of all time, but also the highest scoring international player of either gender ever to play the game. She represents many charitable organisations and is a leader in the fight to rid sports of homophobia.
13 Didier Drogba
The prolific striker from Ivory Coast, who just finished his second stint with Chelsea sits at number 13 on our list. He's a miracle on the field, able to manoeuvre with ease while in possession of the ball and off the field, he is credited with helping end a civil war. Though he lived in France through much of his youth, Ivory Coast was always home. When the national squad made the 2006 World Cup, he pled with the two sides of the ongoing civil war to stop fighting. They did. There were other circumstances, but the country's biggest star is what the sports world wants to remember.
12 Peyton and Eli Manning
Archie Manning was one of the best quarterbacks to ever play for a consistently losing franchise. He spent twelve years with the New Orleans Saints, but they were terrible at the time. His sons, however, have been much more successful, with one winning two Super Bowls as an underdog and his other being possibly the greatest field general of all time, also with a Super Bowl win.
His three sons are also huge successes off the field. Cooper is the least known but he's made a name for himself in the energy industry. Peyton and Eli both give back to their communities and Peyton started his own foundation which focuses on disadvantaged children. Eli worked to set up a funding program for a children's hospital.
11 Roger Federer
The best tennis player ever to play the game (arguably), the Switzerland native has won over eighty tournaments and has had a very solid strategy for winning. His strategy? It's brilliant, he just has no weak points to his game. He can play back at the line and can also volley beautifully when needed.
However, his exploits off the court are nearly as impressive and admirable as his game. He's worked with earthquake and tsunami victims and has spent plenty of time working for UNICEF to raise awareness of many issues, mainly HIV/AIDS.
10 Mariano Rivera
The Yankees 13-time All-Star and five-time World Series winning pitcher, Mariano Rivera is retired now but he stands as one of the best pitchers of the last few decades. The Panamanian with the mean slider (as well as pretty much every other pitch he had mastered) said goodbye to baseball back in 2013 and moved back to his home country.
Throughout his career, he routinely sent money back to Panama to contribute to local social initiatives and charitable causes. Since moving back, he and his wife have donated money to build schools and buy necessary items from clothing to Christmas toys for underprivileged kids.
9 David Beckham
Marrying one of the Spice Girls made David Beckham even more of a celebrity than he would have been had he just played soccer/football. Despite the fact that the paparazzi has been watching him like a hawk for a decade and a half, he has remained a star on the field and off. Apart from his playing career and endorsements, he has been active with UNICEF and has also worked with British troops in Afghanistan. He has also used his time with initiatives to raise awareness and funds for malaria research.
8 Tim Duncan
There are few in the NBA who have achieved the kind of success Tim Duncan has. He has won the NBA Championship five times and has been an All-Star thirteen times. At age 39, he is still playing but his age is gradually starting to show.
He is widely respected as a player, but he is also a published academic and has also set up his owen foundation that has contributed to fundraising and awareness for children's issues. In a sport that has plenty of interesting and loud characters, Duncan has always been a soft-spoken, humble star with a heart of gold.
7 Albert Pujols
With 2,600 hits and 546 home runs (at the time of writing) Dominican Republic born Albert Pujols is one of the best hitters MLB has seen in the past few decades, and while his start was a slow one in 2015, he seems to be back on track.
Off the field, he's pretty much a saint. One of his children has down syndrome, so he and his wife are supporters of causes related to the condition and they started the Pujols Family Foundation. The main goals of the foundation include helping people in the Dominican Republic and aiding people and families of people with disabilities.
6 Georges St-Pierre
While technically retired, there is little doubt in any reasonable MMA fan's mind that he could fight again. He vacated his title, but one has to believe that if he were to return, Dana White would get dollar signs in his eyes, start drooling and give him a title shot right away.
Inside the ring, at press conferences and even against Josh Koscheck on The Ultimate Fighter, GSP maintained a consistent sportsmanlike attitude throughout his career. Look at the amount of guys who expressed disrespect for him, his accent, his skills, and how calm he stayed. He founded a charitable organisation focused on eliminating bullying, a serious problem and something he dealt with in his youth.
5 Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal's best player and Real Madrid's highest scoring forward, Cristiano Ronaldo is widely considered to have one of the kindest hearts in the game right now. Recently, he found a young woman's lost phone while on vacation; instead of just returning it, he returned it and took her and her friends out for a night on the town in Las Vegas.
Other than that, he donates blood often and has donated his time to many charitable causes including raising funds for last year's Ebola outbreak and several initiatives for children.
4 Brian Stann
The highest ranked mixed martial artist on our list never won a UFC belt but was a WEC champion years ago. Brian Stann attended the U.S. Naval Academy after high school and subsequently served as an officer in the Marine Corps. In May 2005, while in Iraq, his platoon was attacked and pinned down. He coordinated support and defense of his men for almost a week before being relieved. All of his Marines lived.
Once out of the Marines, he started training in MMA full time and quickly rose up in WEC, becoming the Light Heavyweight Champion in 2008. He competed in the UFC for a couple of years, going 6-5 between 2009 and 2013. He now worked as President of Hire Heroes USA, a veteran advocacy and employment initiative. I don't need to tell you why this man is a role model.
3 Bethany Hamilton
American surfer Bethany Hamilton is one of the bravest people on the face of the Earth. Back in 2003, at the age of thirteen, she lost her arm in a shark attack. She returned to surfing under a month after losing her arm and she went on to win four tournaments throughout her professional career. She's appeared on too many TV shows to name and the movie Soul Surfer was based on her experience. If she isn't a role model, I'm not sure who is. If your kid is ever complaining, ask "Hey, did your arm get ripped off by a shark?!" Unless the answer is "yes" then it's okay to say "then shut it and get back in there!"
2 Pat Tillman
Pat Tillman gave up a career in the NFL to serve in the U.S. Army. He was a member of the Arizona Cardinals from 1998 until 2001, making a name for himself as an undersized but tough young safety. He turned down what would have been a great contract to join the armed forces. He became a U.S. Army Ranger and was deployed to Afghanistan. He was killed by friendly fire in 2004 and there was a huge cover-up and scandal in the aftermath of his death.
Rather than concentrating on his death and the controversy, we should all focus on Tillman's life. He was devoted to his family and friends, worked hard on the field and did what he believed at all times. No need to politicize this, he was a man who believed in his country and went to fight for it. He set a good example for everyone, whether you like the war or not.
1 Walter Payton
If you think Walter Payton is a bad call for first on this list, you don't know enough about Walter Payton. "Sweetness" is one of the best running backs in the history of the game and on top of that he was one of the greatest guys to ever grace the gridiron. In thirteen years, he topped 1,000 yards in ten of them.
Not only did he inspire every running back to come after him, he was always considered one of the kindest, most genuine men ever to play the game. He only lived to age 45, dying of cholangiocarcinoma (a rare form of liver cancer) in 1999. While he was known as a great man during his career, he dedicated his last few months to advocating for awareness of the need for organ donations. He even set up a charitable foundation to ensure that this legacy was carried on after his death. His playing style, personality and devotion to making the world a better place are all reasons that make Walter Payton a truly great role model for kids, adults, the elderly...anyone.