The jinx of the Sports Illustrated cover

Asis well known, urban legends are stories and tales-often of misfortune and calamity, just as often of various and assorted oddities-that have no basis whatsoever. More specifically, and as is often the case in conspiracy theories, each of these stories has elements of truth that lend vague credibility to the story itself. But only apparently. One of the most well-documented and enduring of these is what Americans call–without mincing words–“The jinx of the Sports Illustrated cover.”

What is it about? It’s quickly said: legend has it that someone who appears on the cover of this historic American sports magazine is then caught in a series of misfortunes that jeopardize his or her career, tarnishing his or her good sports star. This is such a well-known phenomenon that even the same magazine in 2002 made a cover joking about the issue: the photo was of a black cat and the headline read “The Cover That No One Would Pose For.” It must be said that they took it with irony, if nothing else.

The victims

As mentioned, every self-respecting legend has elements of undoubted credibility. After all, no one would pay attention to blatantly fabricated stories. Instead, many of the events involving athletes who appeared on those glorious covers confirm this – absurd – rumor. And we are talking about a very long list, starting as far back as 1954.

It is August 16, 1954, and baseball player Eddie Mathews injures his hand after his Milwaukee Braves team had strung together a string of nine consecutive wins. Needless to say, he had appeared on the cover of SI.
Jan. 31, 1955: Skier Jill Kinmont has recently appeared on that very cover when she crashes on the slopes of Alta in Utah and nearly dies.
In ’58, driver Pat O’Connor died in the Indianapolis 500. Four days earlier he had appeared in SI.

The list is truly endless: to be exact, from 1954 to the present, it counts 182 incidents of sportsmen and women that have appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated, and more in detail:
1954-1960: 15
1961-1969: 19
1970-1980: 15
1981-1990: 18
1990-2000: 12
2001-2009: 21
2010-2022: 83

With such a high case history, it is safe to assume that there is some truth to it. Just coincidences? What is certain is that correlation is not causation, which is to say: there may be a correlation between the sportsmen and the cover in question (of course there is: they were on it!) but not causation, that is to say, the fact that they were portrayed right there does not at all indicate that bad luck will haunt them.

And those who were immune

However, every scientific theory must also be debunked, or rather: it becomes science if nothing can disprove it. Too bad Sports Illustrated also had athletes on its cover who had no negative experience after being there, like Michael Jordan who appeared there no less than 50 times without any consequences. Or like Muhammad Ali who ended up there 40 times or Stephen Curry, also unharmed by the Sports Illustrated treatment. Or rather: from the curse that seems to have struck this magazine. Also because there are (far fewer) examples that counter this theory.

Behind it, however, is some science.

Well, yes: in the end, there are reasons that fully explain why so many athletes have seen their careers slow down or be in dire straits.
To understand this, one only needs to take a small step back and ask, “Why does one end up on that cover in the first place?” The reason is simple: because he has something to celebrate, namely breaking a new record or captaining a winning team.

Those who go on Sports Illustrated are, in short, at the peak of their careers, and from that point on, it is natural that things begin to take at least two different paths: that of slow decline and that of injury. Sport inevitably subjects the body to physical trauma, more or less controlled, which must be taken into account. And that they can create that evil illusion known, precisely, as the Sports Illustrated cover curse.

(Main image credits: aigarsr on


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