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The Cover Story
Terry McDonell
November 10, 2003
Why getting covered by SI is complicated
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November 10, 2003

The Cover Story

Why getting covered by SI is complicated

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The cover is the face of any magazine, the first thing readers see, the place where the editors declare their intentions. At SPORTS ILLUSTRATED the cover has inspired keen interest bordering on obsession since late 1953, when Sid James struggled over which images to use on the two issues he was putting together for prospective advertisers and selected sports editors in order to determine whether the country wanted or needed a sports weekly at all. The cover photograph on the first dummy was a shot of the crowd at Oklahoma's rainy November football victory over Nebraska. The absence of football action from the frame underlined the basic SPORTS ILLUSTRATED proposition: that a new leisure class with a growing interest in recreation was a sports magazine market waiting to happen. (This image eventually became the third of SI's 152 college football covers.) The cover of the second dummy was a golfer, framed by spectators, teeing off at the 16th hole at Cypress Point, and inside the magazine, in addition to the golf piece, was an eclectic mix of stories on hunting, fishing, snorkeling, bowling and Ping-Pong (even a piece on 15th-century jousting art) as well as baseball, motor sports and horse racing. In both cases, the cover images took the spectators' point of view and evoked the pleasure of watching sports.

As you will discover in the following pages, part of SI's ongoing celebration of its 50th anniversary, cover subjects can be subdivided into many categories, both metaphysical and statistical. But rather than wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, try to think about how many times Angels have made the cover (10 times for the L.A./California/ Anaheim Angels, two times for jockey Angel Cordero and another four for Elle Macpherson). The best news is that every cover is reprinted here, all 2,548 of them. That covers the waterfront (OCEAN SAILING, 1966), covers more ground than Jim Brown (SECRETS OF A FULLBACK, 1960) and covers a multitude of sins ( Dennis Rodman in a stud collar, 1995).

Any way you look at it, an SI cover becomes an almost instant pop icon (often shot with a Nikon) that also means something to athletes. "When I was on the cover the first time my senior year at Penn State, my first reaction was shock," says Joe Jurevicius, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' receiver who also appeared on the Super Bowl cover last February. "Since I was old enough to read the words Sports and Illustrated, it was something I dreamed about. I was the kid who had a subscription at home, but if I was in a doctor's or a dentist's office, I'd steal their copies." Bucs rookie quarterback Chris Simms has a variation on that same theme: "It's thrilling to see yourself on the cover. It always brings a smile to my face when I remind my dad [former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms] that I've been on the cover [twice], one more time than him."

Being No. 1 is also a recurring cover theme, and that's not counting the infamous 1972 cover when Walter Iooss's photo of Miami Dolphins running backs Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka featured Csonka surreptitiously flashing his middle finger. The editors missed it, but a riot of howling letters filled them in soon enough. In fact, SI receives more comments about its cover choices than any other subject, and write-in campaigns are mounted at least once a year—most recently for Iowa State wrestler Cael Sanderson, who was worthy but overtaken by difficult hockey news (THE DEATH OF A FAN, 2002) the week he won his 159th straight match and his fourth NCAA title.

Of course there are some readers who believe that making the cover is not necessarily a good tiling. Not that being on the cover 22 times has adversely affected Jack Nicklaus. Nor did Michael Jordan, who hit the cover trifecta by being photographed while playing basketball, golf and baseball, suffer from his 49 appearances. Still, the so-called SI cover jinx is part of America's sporting mindscape, the great unscripted drama, wherein strange things have happened with uncomfortable frequency since the early days of the magazine. Like life itself, a weekly magazine is largely about timing, and in that era of primitive color photo technology, the cover had to be sent to the printer six weeks before publication. Eighteen-year-old Jill Kinmont, a U.S. ski champion, was on the Jan. 31, 1955, cover. (SI is dated five days ahead of the day it goes on sale.) Tragically, during a run on Jan. 30, Kinmont lost control, struck a tree and was paralyzed.

The jinx as we understand it today is about winning and losing, not life and death, and it has much less to do with paranoia than probability. Both teams and individuals tend to make the cover when they're doing exceptionally well, and no one does exceptionally well forever, so the odds that a cover subject will return to earth—and a more normal level of performance—are great. Thus the perception of a causal relationship: the jinx. We don't believe in it, but it contributes to the iconic nature of SI covers.

At SI, it is the managing editor who has the final call on the cover, and the eight men who have held the job over the last 50 years agree that the cover choice is most often about honoring character and achievement in sport. It is also about not making mistakes. For example, in October 1988 SI jumped on the late-breaking story of Ben Johnson's positive drug test after he'd finished first in the 100 meters in Seoul and, on deadline (and faster than you can spell S-t-a-n-o-z-o-l-o-1) kept the original shot of Johnson in motion but changed the cover line from WHOOSH! to BUSTED!

The covers always have had as much rhyme (PITT IS IT!, THE DRIVE FOR FIVE and George Foreman's BLAST FROM THE PAST) as reason (Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice has out-covered home run king Hank Aaron 4-3). But then, SI covers have always been closer to snapshots of their week than oil paintings of their era. The covers were simpler in the 1950s, when America apparently had more time for HUNTING THE CHUKAR PARTRIDGE (1955) or musing over the YALE-DARTMOUTH GAME PREVIEW (1956). Now there are more action photos, more text, more punctuation and small inset photos—sort of covers-within-a-cover, like the pictures-within-the-picture on your 36-incher in the den.

There is not a greater student of SI covers than Scott Smith, who has put together a collection of autographed covers that includes, by his calculation, 94.8% of the 2,548 covers the magazine has run to date. It is thought that the relentless Smith will stop at nothing, which is almost true. In 1988 he made a trip to L.A., hunting for SI cover subjects. One of his stops was the hospital bed of bridge expert Charles Goren, who had appeared on SI's cover three times, in 1957, '60 and '64. Smith waited, magazines and Sharpie in hand, murmuring "Charles?...Charles?" But he swears he did nothing as brazen as shake the frail and ailing man who was on a ventilator and enmeshed in a thicket of tubes, and who did not awaken to the strange voice in his room.

Goren never did sign for Smith, but otherwise it was an outstanding trip. Rafer Johnson, the great decathlete who worked with the Special Olympics, graciously signed in his office in Santa Barbara. When Smith went to what he thought was 1976 Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner's home, his ex-wife explained over the intercom that "when he divorced me, he lost the house." She did, however, give Smith Jenner's new phone number. Smith called, and Jenner invited him over. They hung out, drank beer and took pictures with Jenner's gold medal, and Smith walked off with signed covers. He also located a future governor of California at the gym, pumping iron, not hands, as he would 13 years later, and nailed his autograph. Houston McTear, the world's fastest man for a nanosecond in the late 1970s, was more problematic. McTear was homeless, sleeping most nights under the Santa Monica pier. Smith went to a van serving food to homeless people to see if the sprinter had stopped by for a free breakfast, but he hadn't, so Smith offered a few men who were there $10 each for information. The men went off and, 30 minutes later, returned with McTear in tow.

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