Role model is defined as a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated. It is someone that is revered and who individuals aspire to be like. Influence is defined as the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something.  At first glance you would think that these two words are one in the same but they aren’t.

To explain the difference, take Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for example. He was on a flight studying his football playbook. He ate a banana and had some cran-apple juice to drink. When he was getting off the plane, a woman handed him a note and told him to read it later. She had been seated behind him. The note said, “Hi! You don’t know us but we wanted to thank you. Our son sat behind you on this flight and watched you. He saw you studying your plays, watched you make healthy choices with your snacks, food and drink. He watched how polite you were to everyone. He is only 10 but just made an elite hockey team and we are on our way to training in CT. You are an inspiration to children and for that you should be proud! Thank you and best of luck! – The family that sat behind you.”  Sanu definitely had a profound influence on this young guy and his family. It is safe to say that this kid will try to emulate his characteristics. However, based on the young man’s sport of hockey his role model is likely a hockey player. It is also possible, based on the family flying to a training facility out of state, that his role model is also his parent(s). That is the person or persons that he tries to imitate and aspire to be like.

Back in 1993, Nike had a famous television commercial featuring Charles Barkley. Barkley was not the infamous NBA TNT analyst, but the “round mound of rebound” and league MVP for the Phoenix Suns. In that commercial he stated emphatically, “I am NOT a role model.” He felt that parents should be their kid’s role model. Just because he was talented at sports or any other athlete, that should not qualify as a role model. The only problem is that athletes are regarded as role models instead of an influence. The world in which we live in puts these athletes on a pedestal. Maybe it is because of the money they make. Maybe it is the fact that we have 24-hour accessibility to their lives through social media and the news. Regardless of why, today’s athletes have to accept the fact that they are role models and everyone is watching. Granted it is not fair to them to be in the public eye and scrutinized for everything they do. However, just look at the example of Sanu. I am sure he did not think that anyone was noticing him on the plane; it was not as if he was in a public restaurant or place. He was simply minding his business. Athletes also have to understand that they have a platform in which they can provide some valuable lessons that will be taken to heart. Lessons that a role model may be trying to reinforce. It is so important that athletes realize the influence they can have on young ones. There is a caveat to all of this and that is no one is perfect. It is tough on young minds to accept that their star athlete is being suspended for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). It is difficult to help a youngster understand that the person they look up to is missing a home game he can attend because of violating a substance abuse policy. It is hard to explain to kids that the person they revere is no longer in the league because of domestic violence abuse. This means that your role model and your person of influence will make mistakes. If you have chosen the right role model, then it will be a first-hand learning experience. That person can sit down, explain, and show you why they messed up. You will see the effect that mistakes can have with your own eyes. If it is an athlete, then you have to wait for a pre-drafted letter from their public relations person before you hear “I’m sorry.” Even if it is a sincere apology from the heart about a mistake, the next story comes along and what had taken place is gone and forgotten.

That is the difference that children SHOULD and NEED to see. It is ok and only natural to be influenced by some sports figures but a role model should be someone “close to home.” I hope that it is a parent, a relative, or a teacher. I hope it is someone that can have a positive effect on your future and what you will eventual become in life. I hope it is someone that you can always go to for advice or vent. I hope it is someone that is a model that you can follow his or her example closely.