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!'"
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.
But what sets apart the great players is an ability to manage pressure, the psychiatrist added.
"The best athletes really do see pressure as nothing more than energy," he said. "Instead of trying to block it, they feed off of it.
"They approach the games thinking, 'This is what I was meant to do, to play the biggest games,'" he said. "I think [Flacco] and his teammates are going to embrace this pressure and channel it into a focused performance."
This is Flacco's second time on the SI cover; the Sept. 19, 2011, issue featured a photo of him having handed off the ball to a charging Ray Rice. The headline: "Baltimore thumps the Steelers. Any questions? Raven Strong."
Well, one question does comes to mind: How did the Ravens do in their next game?
C. Shane Reese, a statistics professor at Brigham Young University — where, coincidentally, he once taught Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta — thinks the SI effect is more likely a manifestation of that old adage: What goes up must eventually come down.
Or, as statisticians call it, "regression to the mean," he said. Whatever a player or team's level of play, they likely have exceeded it to get on the SI cover, and what seems like a jinx is really just the natural reversion to their normal abilities, Reese said.
"It's akin to what people call the sophomore slump," said Reese, who chairs the sports section of the American Statistical Association. "They had a great season; when they're on the cover, they're at the tail end of it."
It is even harder to convince statisticians of the so-called "Madden NFL" curse, in which players featured on the cover of annual editions of the video game went on to suffer injuries and other problems. Ray Lewis, on the cover of "Madden 2005," had his first season without an interception and missed the final game of the season with an injured wrist.
But Reese said that too few players have been on a "Madden" cover — the game began featuring one a year in 1999 — to discern any pattern.
"The problem of a small sample size," he said, "is notorious in statistics."
Glickman, the Boston statistician, said Ravens fans need not fear the curse. If he were trying to predict the outcome of Sunday's game, he would look at more conventional statistics — previous match-ups, each team's regular-season results, recent trajectories, which players are injured and a host of other factors.
But even that wouldn't be able to capture the complexity of factors that will figure into the game, he said.
"It's very hard to come up with something comprehensive enough," Glickman said of trying to predict game outcomes. "The Ravens beating the Broncos — no one thought that would happen."