Does being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated cause future decrements in performance?
Many coaches, athletes, sports fans and sports commentators seem to think so. It’s common to hear talk of a so-called “Sports Illustrated Jinx,” that is, the notion that being featured on the cover leads to bad-luck that negatively affects future performance.
Examples of the Sports Illustrated Jinx (Wikipedia excerpts):
“May 26, 1958: Race car driver Pat O’Connor appears on the cover of the magazine. He dies four days later on the first lap of the Indianapolis 500.
August 7, 1978: Pete Rose appears on the cover the same week that his 44-game hitting streak ended.
May 8, 1989: Jon Peters, of Brenham High School in Texas, sets the national high school record for games won by a pitcher, with a 51-0 record. The next game after his cover appearance, he loses for the first (and only) time of his high school career.
In November 2007, Kerry Meier of the Kansas Jayhawks appeared on the cover with the caption “Dream Season (So Far)” at the time when the Jayhawks’s record was 11-0. In their next game they lost to their arch rivals, the Missouri Tigers, 36-28, ending the Jayhawks’s perfect season.
November 9, 2009: Iowa’s Derell Johnson Koulianos appears on the front cover with the words “Still Perfect.” The Hawkeyes lost to Northwestern two days before the issue date, ending the longest winning streak in school history.”
The belief in the Sports Illustrated Jinx reportedly dissuaded Olympic medalist Shirley Babashoff from getting her picture taken for the magazine before the 1976 Olympics (Gilovich, 1991).
The Sports Illustrated Jinx can be explained by the effects of regression. Gilovich (1991, p.26) shows how regression applies to the myth of the Sports Illustrated Jinx this way:
It does not take much statistical sophistication to see how regression effects may be responsible for the belief in the Sports Illustrated jinx. Athletes’ performances at different times are imperfectly correlated. Thus, due to regression alone, we can expect an extraordinary good performance to be followed, on the average, by a somewhat less extraordinary performance. Athletes appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated when they are newsworthy- i.e., when their performance is extraordinary. Thus, an athlete’s superior performance in the weeks preceding a cover story is very likely to be followed by somewhat poorer performance in the weeks after. Those who believe in the jinx, like those who believe in the hot hand, are mistaken, not in what they observe, but in how they interpret what they see. Many athletes do suffer deterioration in their performance after being pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the mistake lies in citing a jinx, rather than citing regression as the proper interpretation of this phenomenon.
Ostensibly, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated didn’t affect Michael Jordan, who made 57 appearances on the cover (Greenfield, 2010), in a negative way. Nor did it negatively affect Vince Young who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice during Texas’s National Championship season (Zahn, 2002). It didn’t work out too badly for Mark Spitz who won seven gold medals after being featured on the cover.
It is important to understand that just because one event precedes another doesn’t necessarily mean the preceding event causes the latter. This misperception is one of the factors contributing to the illusion of cause.
Gilovich, T. (1991). How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason In Everyday Life. New York: Free Press.
Greenfield, J. (2010). Michael Jordan: The Sports Illustrated Covers. http://www.chicagonow.com/blogs/sports/2010/01/michael-jordan-the-sports-illustrated-covers-1.html (accessed June 15, 2011)
Wikipeida. Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_Illustrated_Cover_Jinx (accessed June 15, 2011)
Zahn, P. (2002). Is Their (sic) a “Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. CNN. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0201/25/ltm.01.html. (accessed June 15, 2011).
Photo by Kjunstorm, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.