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Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: May 5, 11:39 AM ET
Driving spirit behind Lin, Tebow

By Johnette Howard
ESPN.com

The lists came out within days of each other the past two weeks, and each time, the reaction within sports was swift, often mocking.

First, Tim Tebow made Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, which, to borrow a line from singer Lyle Lovett, is a mighty big place. Then Tebow's fellow NFL players voted him No. 95 on their list of the top 100 players in the league. (The players did that?) And just this week, Tebow and Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin finished No. 2 and No. 10, respectively, on Forbes magazine's list of the most influential athletes.

Bill Bradley, Jeremy Lin
Jeremy Lin got to rub elbows with Sen. Bill Bradley at a celebration of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

So much for "It's gotta be the shoes" or Mercury Morris' sneering rule of the sports jungle: "Don't call me when you're in my town. Call me when you're on my block!"

"Look for next week's post on the new list of most influential punt protectors," an NFL.com blogger sarcastically wrote of Tebow's finish in the players' poll, referring to one of the special teams roles Tebow might have to fill for the Jets, quite a comedown from last season's job as Denver's miracle-making starting quarterback.

The cynics can have their fun, but Tebow's and Lin's rankings on Forbes' list are enough to make you wonder what kind of data the folks at Nielsen, which conducted the Forbes poll, or the people who study trends in society know that might explain it. What's the extra dimension that drives Tebow-mania or Linsanity?

What if we don't have to settle for intellectually lazy fallbacks such as "It is what it is" -- a catchall phrase that Ari Wallach, CEO of Synthesis Corp., jokes might better apply to the real mysteries of the universe, such as "How does Justin Bieber sell so many records?"

Could it be that Tebow and Lin's faith in God or some nostalgic yearning among even secular fans for clean-cut stars they can believe in -- or both -- is fueling the Tebow-Lin phenomena?

Could it be that no matter how much skeptics, agnostics and atheists among us complain about Tebowing and gripe that God doesn't give a flying rip about who wins a game -- the only "man upstairs" who really matters is the guy in the replay booth -- a far greater number of people actually do care about the "God" part of their sports gods? After all the ways athletes trip over themselves to be hipper, slicker, cooler, louder, sexier, sillier and ever more outrageous in their endless crusades to amass Twitter followers, does it turns out they've got it wrong?

Could it be that God is the ultimate sports brand?

"Yes," says Wallach, whose consulting firm helps clients tackle the way commerce, politics and religion intersect.

As Rex Ryan might say, Well, ain't that a [bleep]? Do you believe this [expletive]!

Could it be that Tebow and Lin's muscular faith in God, or some nostalgic yearning among even secular fans for clean-cut stars they can believe in -- or both -- is fueling the Tebow-Lin phenomena?

Both Wallach and Stephen Masters, a Nielsen vice president who presided over the poll that helped Forbes arrive at its most influential list, say there are ways to explain why Tebow and Lin's influence seems exponentially higher, or burning hotter.

"In the American psyche, our sports heroes like Lin and Tebow are just that: They're heroes, our superheroes," Wallach explains. "But more often than not, there are all these guardrails put up to keep it highly secular, for many reasons. It's like the old saying, 'What don't you talk about at the dinner table? Religion and politics.' Right? And what do leagues or corporations or brands not do? They don't touch religion and politics. They say, 'Nobody wants to be told this or that. ... Chill out on the God talk.'

"But at the end of the day, Tebow and Lin still allow people to connect to a bigger and far older story. There's this deeper hope and longing that's going on."

Which is?

"You can look at it like the eternal hero myth in religion, that certain people -- Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha -- all came out of nowhere to do great things," Wallach says. "It's things like 72 percent of millennials [people age 18 to 29] saying they consider themselves more 'spiritual' than 'religious' -- I'm quoting a 2010 USA Today poll here -- and more than 80 percent of them said they are 'spiritual' and they want to connect with something bigger than themselves.

"And, as you know -- [Laughs.] -- everyone who watches sports is quasi-religious in a way, right? So when an athlete like Tebow or Lin breaks out and they're connected to something spiritual too -- again, it doesn't have to be religious -- that's the secret sauce that everyone wants or is looking for & and there's a multiplier effect.

"It taps into this deep hope and longing for the Lin in all of us -- or the God in all of us, if you will."

That sounds right, doesn't it? Especially the breakdown of the multiplier effect.

"One of the more powerful attributes to the Lin story, the one that people brought up to me a lot, was he was sleeping on some guy's couch when he first hit it big with the Knicks this season," Wallach says. "Everybody loved that story.

"Everyone has slept on someone's couch. It's the sort of hero myth that appeals to people. You too can break out and do great things if you just do X, Y, Z too."

Masters says the Nielsen survey, which attempts to give hard data and metrics -- called an "N" rating -- that corporations can use to match their products with athletes, confirmed some of the same things about Lin and Tebow that Wallach has heard anecdotally, even though, Masters adds, the Forbes' poll didn't ask about religion specifically.

Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow touches on something more than sport, and that is why he became so popular.

A cross-section of 1,100 people of different races, ages, ethnicity and religions from across the country were asked to rank athletes in terms of awareness, acceptability and 46 personality traits, including "trustworthy," "irreverent" and "creepy." ("Creepy" is an actual word that's used? "Yes," Masters says. "Tiger Woods had a huge creepy score, which was no surprise. He and LeBron James rank very highly in the most disliked category.")

"What Tebow and Lin both rank very highly in is categories like 'down to earth,' 'approachable,' 'integrity,' 'leadership,'" Masters says. "And even though we don't ask about religion, per se, you have to think their well-known faith has something to do with the traits people attached to them, right? The values are similar."

Masters notes Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, the other quarterbacks on the Forbes Top 10, all won Super Bowls. Jimmie Johnson is a five-time racing champion. Manny Pacquiao is a world boxing champion many times over.

Lin and Tebow are the least-accomplished professionally, yet they made the list because "They've transcended sport and become mainstream, influential figures outside of their games," Masters says.

He and Wallach are saying the same things. What catapulted Tebow and Lin into the stratosphere -- that "hope and longing" that Wallach says is driving Tebow-mania and Linsanity -- is a story that's older than dirt.

"People connect with the idea there's something heroic in all of us, even if we do come from nowhere," Wallach says.

In other words? Ignore Mercury Morris.

Tug McGraw was on to something when he said, "Ya gotta believe."