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Alexanderm Wolff Viewpoint

Unraveling the Jinx

Posted: Friday August 29, 2003 12:32PM; Updated: Thursday September 11, 2003 5:18PM
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The following article first appeared on SI.com on Jan. 15, 2002.

As years go, 2001 was a pretty good one for the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. Which is to say it was annus horribilis for Nomar Garciaparra, the Oregon State football team, Eric Crouch and the Washington Redskins, all of whom graced our cover and paid for it.

That's why I'm bracing to hear from the ASPCA.

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Jan. 21, 2002
Walter Iooss, Jr.

See, I wrote the Jan. 21, 2002, SI cover story, in which we conducted a thorough exploration of what happened to everyone who has appeared on our cover, from Eddie Mathews, on the inaugural issue in 1954, to Michael Jordan, who took his 51st turn last week just as his wife filed for divorce. To illustrate the story, we asked St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner to pose for the cover with a black cat. Only Warner refused, so the cat does a solo turn with the billing THE COVER THAT NO ONE WOULD POSE FOR.

It was a hoot to work on the piece. On the one hand, we listened as sober statisticians went over the basics of "regression to the mean," which would explain why a hitter who gets hot enough to make the cover goes into a slump shortly thereafter.

On the other hand, we heard from sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who believes that there is an SI Cover Jinx of sorts. Only he calls it "a failure to efficiently metabolize heightened expectations" or some such -- and he actually works with clients, including athletes such as Grant Hill, on this very matter.

In investigating virtually all of SI's 2,456 covers, we found 913 "jinxes" -- a demonstrable misfortune or decline in performance following a cover appearance roughly 37.2 percent of the time. One of the most fascinating things we discovered seemed to buttress Loehr's contention that the Jinx is more likely to strike athletes in fine-motor-skill sports like golf and tennis than smashmouth sports like boxing. Golfers were "jinxed" almost 70 percent of the time and tennis players after more than 50 percent of their appearances, while boxers suffered barely 16 percent of the time.

My favorite Jinxstance has to be the fate of University of Washington quarterback Bob Schloredt, an All-America who was pictured taking a snap on a 1960 cover. A week later, the heavily favored Huskies lost to Navy when the Middies scored in the final minutes following Schloredt's fumble of -- you guessed it -- a snap.

I'm still not sure why Warner declined our offer to put him on the cover. After all, he wears No. 13, and that number hasn't kept him from achieving stardom and winning a Super Bowl and two NFL MVP awards. What's more, Warner is as confirmed a Christian as there is in sports, and if you believe that your life is subject to a superior power, some dubious magazine hoodoo shouldn't give you a second thought.

But there you are. So we were left with our front-page feline, Mr. Ed, supplied by the agency Theatrical Animals. Mr. Ed knows his way in front of a camera -- he recently appeared in an episode of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch -- and maybe, in the course of doing that show, he learned a thing or two about spells and how to ward them off.

"The first cat we auditioned was totally black," says SI photo editor George Washington, who supervised the cover shoot. "It made me a little nervous. I was glad to see that Mr. Ed had a little white spot on his chest."

George may have been reassured. But all the cats I know will be steering clear of Mr. Ed's Tender Vittles bowl.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is a regular contributor to SI.com.

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