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There are several smiling Buddhas in Madame Katherine's parlor, along with a menorah and figurines of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Madame Katherine has her bases covered. We sit across from each other in wicker chairs, and I extend my upturned hands toward her. A palm reader and psychic, she studies my life lines and says she is in touch with the energy of the universe, which is telling her that I have questions about an event in my future. What, she asks, is this mystery I have been pondering?
She has it exactly right. Maybe this really is the place to find the elusive answer I've been seeking. "It's about the Super Bowl," I say, and Madame Katherine, a grandmotherly type from the former Yugoslavia who now lives and works near San Francisco, looks at me with an expression that says she does not know the Super Bowl from a salad bowl. It's a football game, I tell her. Kind of a big deal. Has the universe happened to mention who's going to win the next one?
It might seem strange, considering my line of work, to seek outside help for this kind of prediction, but there is no escaping the facts. With all due respect to my colleagues at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, we have not exactly distinguished ourselves as prognosticators lately. Apparently we have not been getting the universe's e-mails, because we correctly forecast a champion about as often as Derek Jeter goes dateless on a Saturday night. This issue includes our prediction that the New England Patriots will be the Super Bowl winners in February, but we'll understand if you want to seek a second opinion.
SI also picked the Pats to win last season. We were wrong. We anointed the New Orleans Saints the year before that, and the Carolina Panthers each of the two seasons before that. Wrong, wrong and wrong. It's not just in the NFL that our crystal ball fails us. We chose Georgia as the likely national champion in college football last season, and the Bulldogs finished ranked 13th. We told you that this year's World Series winner would be the New York Mets, who are currently so injured and inept that they would have a hard time winning the Little League World Series.
It is not a good time to be in this slump, because there is such heavy emphasis on predictions these days. Every fan wants a window into the future, for his fantasy drafts or to beat the point spread or just to impress his friends. The desire to know the unknowable in sports is greater than ever. We barely take time to appreciate what is before we turn our attention to what will be. Forget about today. Let's talk about tomorrow or, better yet, a week from tomorrow.
Hours after Florida won college football's national championship last January, talking heads on television were forecasting which teams would be at the top of the rankings the next season. College basketball has its bracketologists, who spend weeks predicting and repredicting the March Madness seedings and matchups, because apparently it's important to know in advance whether Villanova will be the sixth seed in the East or the fifth seed in the Midwest. Recruiting websites proliferate, trading on fans' hunger to know which 10th-graders are going to be college All-Americas in five years. In the NFL and the NBA, every draft is preceded by countless mock drafts, because it's not enough to have teams try to predict which players will make useful pros. No, we need to predict what the predictions will be.
But despite the increased focus on the future, forecasting is as much a hit-or-miss enterprise as ever. Number 1 draft picks still flame out, and no-chance underdogs still pull upsets often enough to remind us that no one really knows anything, that no amount of detailed analysis or inside information can guarantee an accurate forecast. We have made advances in almost every area of sport over the years—equipment, technology, even the limits of human performance—but the ability to foresee results hasn't evolved at all. That's a good thing (even if it doesn't feel that way when our underdog doesn't beat the spread), because the appeal of sport rests largely on its unpredictability. Guessing wrong so often may be frustrating, but if we guessed right more often, we wouldn't be as interested.
Still, it would be satisfying to get this one right, just to raise SI's batting average above the Mendoza line, which is why I am disappointed when Madame Katherine tells me she does not give sports predictions. Her clients get upset if she doesn't foresee success for their favorite teams, she says. But after a bit of persuasion she relents. "I am feeling very positive energy from the East," she says. "I am seeing New York, does that make sense?" That would be the Giants, a reasonable choice. "No, a shorter name than that," she says. "Only a few letters."
The Jets? The team with the rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez? The team that hasn't won a Super Bowl since the days of bell-bottoms and peace signs? "All I can tell you is where I feel the energy," says Madame Katherine.
Fair enough. The prediction here is that the Jets will be the next Super Bowl champs, far-fetched as that may seem. As I leave the parlor, I can hear the energy of the universe calling to me at last. Either that, or it is one of the Buddhas, laughing.