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The Curse of ‘Play’?

The Sports Illustrated jinx is famous: all too often, as soon as an athlete appears on the cover of SI, said athlete loses the big game or hits a streak of very bad luck. The Jinx got so famous, in fact, that SI itself once ran a cover story on the Jinx. The piece was written by Alexander Wolff, who also wrote a sidebar with some background about the article:

[W]e conducted a thorough exploration of what happened to everyone who has appeared on our cover … On the one hand, we listened as sober statisticians went over the basics of “regression to the mean,” which would explain why a hitter who gets hot enough to make the cover goes into a slump shortly thereafter. On the other hand, we heard from sports psychologist Jim Loehr, who believes that there is an SI Cover Jinx of sorts. Only he calls it ‘a failure to efficiently metabolize heightened expectations’ or some such … In investigating virtually all of SI’s 2,456 covers, we found 913 “jinxes” — a demonstrable misfortune or decline in performance following a cover appearance roughly 37.2 percent of the time. One of the most fascinating things we discovered seemed to buttress Loehr’s contention that the Jinx is more likely to strike athletes in fine-motor-skill sports like golf and tennis than smashmouth sports like boxing. Golfers were “jinxed” almost 70 percent of the time and tennis players after more than 50 percent of their appearances, while boxers suffered barely 16 percent of the time.

Well, it seems that another sports-magazine-cover jinx has just been born.

A few months ago, the N.Y. Times began publishing a new sports mag called Play. (In its first year, Play is being published four times; I think it’s supposed to go monthly after that, but I’m not sure.) Levitt and I wrote a short article about Super Bowl gambling for the magazine’s first issue. Even though the issue came out on the day of the Super Bowl, there was no football player on the cover. This probably had to do with the fact that, given the production schedule of a long-lead magazine, there was no way of knowing which teams would make the Super Bowl by the time the magazine was put to bed. So the first cover star of Play was … Bode Miller.

Okay, okay, a lot of magazines put Bode Miller on the cover.

But then the second issue of Play comes out a few weeks ago, and on its cover is … Ronaldinho. Whether you want to call it a curse or just a choke, Ronaldinho gave a World Cup performance that was only slightly better than Bode Miller’s Olympics performance.

The obvious question is this: Who does Play put on its third cover, which is due out on August 20? Let’s see: baseball will be heading into the stretch; the NFL will be just around the corner; the U.S. Open in tennis will start the following week; and the PGA Championship will have its final round on that very day, Aug. 20. The winner of last year’s Open was … yikes … Phil Mickelson. And Mickelson has plainly been cursed once this year already.

So maybe Play should just go ahead and put Mickelson on the cover. If they get lucky, they’ll start a new tradition — of reversing curses instead of causing them. And if not, how much worse can it really get — for the magazine and, especially, for Mickelson?