Will Ravens' Flacco be hurt by Sports Illustrated cover?

Magazine has history of jinxing athletes it features

  • Sports Illustrated magazine -- whose prestigious cover image is perceived to carry a curse -- features Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the eastern regional issue dated Jan. 21, just as the team heads to the AFC championship against the New England Patriots.
Sports Illustrated magazine -- whose prestigious cover image… (Handout photo )
January 17, 2013|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore Ravens proved last week that they could beat not just the Denver Broncos but the Las Vegas oddsmakers who had predicted their defeat. But can they now beat the Sports Illustrated jinx?

The magazine — whose prestigious cover image is perceived to carry a curse — features Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in the eastern regional issue dated Jan. 21, just as the team heads to the AFC championship against the New England Patriots. That should send chills through the superstitious, given how often an athlete or team gracing SI's cover goes on to suffer some mishap in the wake of the glory.

Flacco laughs off the so-called jinx, which the magazine itself once took seriously enough to analyze. The study of more than 2,000 cover subjects — including Cal Ripken Jr. — found that indeed, 37.2 percent of them went on to play poorly, lose games, injure themselves or even die.

"I sure hope not," Flacco said when asked if he thought a curse followed SI cover subjects. "It just depends on how we go play on Sunday."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh dismissed the notion. Terming it "cool" that Flacco made the cover, Harbaugh said, "I'm not superstitious. I don't believe it."

Statisticians may agree.

"So, 37 percent certainly seems like a large number, but it's difficult to make any conclusions," said Mark Glickman, a statistician and research professor at Boston University in the heart of Patriots country. "You need some kind of baseline. Intuitively, it seems like a large number but you have to ask, in comparison to what?"

To make a meaningful comparison, Glickman said, it would be crucial to know what percentage of good athletes or teams in general have something bad happen within a certain time frame.

"Let's say the number is 25 percent," Glickman said, picking a random number and tapping away on his computer. "If you're saying something bad happens 37 percent of the time to SI covers, and the question is, is that statistically significant? Yes, it is."

The problem, of course, is that no one really knows how many good teams or athletes go on to suffer a mishap.

SI's jinxed athletes, at least anecdotally, include some of the greatest of all time, from basketball's Larry Bird to baseball's Ted Williams to Ripken. In 1995, when SI put the Orioles iron man on its cover, proclaiming "Cal Ripken Jr. plays the game better than anyone else," the shortstop ended up misplaying two routine grounders in a game that week.

Whether that was coincidence or curse, SI found many similar examples in a 2002 review of its 2,456 covers to date. Working with statisticians, the magazine tried to be as rigorous as possible, setting parameters of what would be considered "evidence" of a jinx. The event had to be measurable, as in a hitting slump. And it had to happen relatively soon — in the next football game, for example.

By those standards, the magazine determined that 913 cover subjects had been jinxed.

If the jinx is real, it began immediately for SI, whose circulation of more than 3.2 million makes it the most popular sports magazine in the country. The magazine's first issue, dated Aug. 16, 1954, featured Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves, who a week later was struck on the hand by a pitch and missed seven games. In the years since, winning streaks came to a halt, the "world's best" left the Olympics without medals and highly touted prospects fell on their faces.

In some respects, SI really suffers from the jinx, by sticking its neck out and declaring a team unbeatable or the best and then seeing the accolades thrown back in the magazine's face. SI called the Tennessee Titans the NFL's best late in the 2000 season, for example, but the team was beaten the next week by the Ravens, who were on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

As Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne told Esquire magazine for an article on the Ravens-Titans rivalry, then-coach Brian Billick took a copy of that SI into the postgame celebration in the locker room. "Brian comes storming in, holds up the magazine, and says to the guys: 'Here it is guys, the NFL's best team,'" Byrne told Esquire. "'Well, maybe they are.' And then he paused and finished, 'But not today!'"

In fairness, though, SI editors could say they get it right more often than not, with athletes from Michael Phelps to Michael Jordan appearing on the cover multiple times to no ill effect.

If the SI cover effect isn't voodoo and curses, what could account for the 37 percent of unfortunates?

A sports psychiatrist, who asked that his name not be used because of his work with professional athletes, said that getting on the SI cover can add the pressure of heightened expectations to the next game. Though previously a player might have been able to play under the radar, suddenly he or she is the person whose face is on millions of copies of the country's premier sports magazine.

"They're held to a higher standard because they've achieved at a higher level," he said.

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