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That Old Black Magic
Alexander Wolff
January 21, 2002
Millions of superstitious readers—and many athletes—believe that an appearance on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S cover is the kiss of death. But is there really such a thing as the SI Jinx?
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January 21, 2002

That Old Black Magic

Millions of superstitious readers—and many athletes—believe that an appearance on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S cover is the kiss of death. But is there really such a thing as the SI Jinx?

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"A mature athlete, who hasn't been overly taken with all the publicity, who's been through a lot, knows he's lost if he doesn't metabolize a cover appearance in a constructive way. If attention comes in doses, if there's a buildup, if an athlete thinks, Of course I'm going to be on the cover of SI, that athlete can be impervious to it. But if it comes suddenly and for the first time, there's a level of stress and pressure that the athlete has never experienced."

An Empirical Test (Warning: Latin Ahead)

Throughout history mankind has been seduced by what logicians call the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. If Event A takes place before Event B, it's tempting to conclude that A caused B, even if there's no rational basis for that conclusion. That Casey Stengel, skipper of the fledgling New York Mets, appeared on SI's 1962 baseball preview probably didn't cause the Mets to lose nine straight games to begin the season and set records for futility. They stank all on their own, thank you. From all we've come to know about Leon Spinks, he hardly needed the bad mojo of our cover, which he graced after defeating Ali in '78, to get arrested twice and lose his next bout. Indeed in '82, when the Bruins had an 18-game unbeaten streak end on Feb. 6, shortly after Bobby Orr's appearance on the cover, some other forces may well have been at work.

To avoid falling into the trap of post hoc, ergo propter hoc, we'd be well served to challenge our 37.2%—indeed, to challenge all our data—with the simple query: Compared with what? If SI didn't exist, if there had been no Jan. 23, 1984, cover for Wayne Gretzky to appear on, would the Great One have extended his scoring streak beyond 51 consecutive games, rather than watch it end on Jan. 28? Would Paul Hornung and Notre Dame have lost three straight after appearing in '56? Would the California Angels' Nolan Ryan, 10-3 when he graced the cover in '75, have dropped his next eight decisions? Would all these diminished performances have happened regardless of our silly little magazine?

This is an essential question. To frame it better we rang up professor Gary Smith, who teaches statistics at Pomona College and has conducted many studies on sports. He tells us that to conduct a scientifically sound study of the Jinx, we'd have to parse the career of every cover subject to find out not only his lifetime statistics but also his frequency of injury, the number of pratfalls he typically suffered around the house, etc., etc., ad nauseam. (We warned you about the Latin.) Then we'd have to weigh all this data against the evidence we'd gathered for that cover subject within the relevant time period, the "Jinx window." It's also enormously difficult, professor Smith says, "to separate the randomness in performance that sometimes causes an athlete to perform above his ability and get on the cover"—that is, progression from the mean—"from any kind of psychological factor whereby once you're on the cover, you choke or freeze," which is to say, the Loehr phenomenon of poorly metabolized expectation.

Scores of negative forces might come under the rubric of the Jinx. Each Jinx victim, in turn, is affected by scores of variables, some unique to his or her circumstances, that we'd have to control for. It would take a phalanx of reporters in lab coats to test more than 2,400 cover subjects buffeted by so many forces. Frankly, my dear, we don't have the time.

What's more, SI does exist—has for more than 47 years—and there's no way to simulate its absence.

Lourdes, Damn Lourdes, and Statistics

The supernatural flip side of a jinx is a miracle, and the rapturous counterpart to the cover of SI is Lourdes, the town in southwestern France to which more than 100 million pilgrims have flocked since 1858. Over nearly a century and a half, the Roman Catholic Church has certified 66 cases of pilgrims miraculously cured of incurable illnesses by a visit to Lourdes—miracle-cure odds that are longer than a million to one. Given that the spontaneous remission rate of cancer is somewhere between one in 10,000 and one in 100,000; that only three of those 66 certified miracle cures involved cancer; and that the likelihood of dying in an accident en route to Lourdes is many times greater than the chance of being cured, you might want to spare yourself the schlepp. Yet any one of those 66 Lourdes miracle cases would sooner credit his restored health to that faithful pilgrimage than to some mumbo jumbo about "spontaneous remission." In the same way if you've suffered a misfortune following an appearance on the cover of SI, it'll be hard to persuade you that your cover turn had nothing to do with it.

In 1985 Tim Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell, examined another proverbial truth of sports—that in basketball, successful shots often cluster in the way we recognize as "a hot hand." Gilovich found that NBA players who make one, two or three consecutive shots are no more likely to make a second, third or fourth shot than players who have just missed a shot. Told of the Cornell study, Red Auerbach's harrumph could be heard in the Berkshires. "Who is this guy?" the Celtics' paterfamilias wanted to know. "So he makes a study. I couldn't care less."

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