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Legend: Players whose photos grace cans of Campbell's Chunky Soup are doomed by a curse to injury or subsequent obscurity.
has almost become a truism that failure seems to dog the steps of those who've recently been the objects of vaunted recognitions of excellence or intense positive media focus. Companies that have been the subject of glowing articles in their hometown papers soon see their stock plummet. Those in the music industry whom "Most Promising New Group" awards are bestowed upon either are never heard from again or disband within the year. Starry-eyed, famous couples who tie the knot in extravagant celebrity weddings quietly file for divorce months later. And athletes in every sport who were triumphantly borne through stadiums on their teammates' shoulders one year are slump-stricken objects of derision the
With so much spooky synchronicity going on, it's hard for us — pattern-seeking creatures that we are — to reject out of hand the quiet little whispers about curses' attaching themselves to various awards or recognitions. How else to explain why something that was going so good just up and stopped? How else to make sense of success so quickly turning to failure, or of bright promise dying on the vine?
Campbell's Chunky Soup has recently joined the ranks of Sports Illustrated in the realm of sports-related superstition. Football players whose smiling visages have come to be associated with that product have seemingly experienced runs of bad luck, prompting rumors of a curse associated with the honor. (Sports Illustrated has long been associated with a curse holding that athletes whose photos grace its cover soon suffer reversals of fortune. A round-up of instances of the "curse" can be found at the CNN Sports Illustrated site.)
According to believers, once a player appears in a Campbell's Chunky Soup commercial he doesn't make it to the Super Bowl, or if he does, his team loses. None of the Chunky Soup spokesmen played in the big game in 2002, and previous honorees were similarly denied. The Chunky Soup Curse is whispered to have stopped St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner from making the Super Bowl in 2001 (he led his team to victory in 2000, then agreed to be on the soup can), and the curse could also could explain Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis' numerous injuries throughout the 2001 and 2002 seasons.
Given that only a few football players have endorsement deals with Campbell's, and given that none of them have done all that well since, it's easy to pick up on an apparent pattern of cause-and-effect: there must be a curse involved. From a distance it all looks inexplicable unless one allows for the supernatural explanation. Yet it's not a matter of capricious cosmic forces or of jealous gods smacking down mere mortals who had been temporarily exalted and are now getting their comeuppance. A number of factors — some real, some only products of our flawed abilities to observe — contribute to the perception of failure's swiftly following on the heels of success, in football as well as in other fields.
Whether it's football players pictured on soup cans or intriguing new artists taking the music world by storm, the mechanics of fame and honor's potential influence on those being smiled upon are the same. Let's look at some of those forces:
Beyond matters related to pressures brought about by success — matters that transcend football and relate to all manner of endeavor — the realities of the game itself contribute to beliefs in curses' sidelining players:
For failure to follow success, there must first be success. By definition, success is some manner of positive achievement beyond the norm of one's peers; it's not the usual manner of things within the group. Though we always want to think in terms of good times lasting forever, for most, the startling accomplishments that lift them out of the herd and bring them to the world's attention are the result of a happy confluence of timing, ability, skill, and luck. Only a few who are, for this brief moment of time, viewed as exceptional are themselves great and therefore capable of sustaining one year's dizzying results over the long haul. More simply stated, for the vast majority of those we currently look to as heroes, it's to be expected their results will fall back down to natural performance levels. In music, a great first album is far more likely to be followed by a disappointing second offering than it is by another chart-buster, and for an athlete a great season — one that worked to make him the darling of the media and the object of widespread fan adoration — will most likely be followed by average or mediocre ones. This is known as "regression to average."
Any measure of success brings its own additional set of pressures, pressures that weren't there to hinder things when that initial achievement was racked up. The spotlight proves uncomfortable for some, and superior results easily achieved when only a few were looking on become difficult to prolong when media and fan attention is unrelenting.
Success also brings its distractions from the primary task at hand in the form of new demands upon the hero's time: new contracts need to negotiated and signed, more time has to be devoted to satisfying the media's constant thirst for news, endorsements of products requires time in front of the cameras. All of this time has to come from someplace, so it gets culled from practice time or moments previously used for getting away from it all. Also, energies that were previously focused upon only one goal now have to be divided up among many. Though a bit of such redirection and dilution likely won't prove harmful to anyone's performance, too much can work to erode the individual's timing, his teamwork coordination, and his mental state. Especially in the world of professional sports, where only small differences exist between one team or one player and another, even as small a matter as missing a key practice or getting a troubled night's sleep before an important match-up can have a devastating result upon the score.
Success also goes to the heads of some, causing them to overestimate the effect their talent has on results and to underestimate the effect of their hard work. Someone so afflicted stays out late drinking and carousing, counting on his native abilities to overwhelm the opposition even if he is muzzy-headed, unfocused, distracted, and feels like death warmed over as he takes the field. Or he skips practices, or doesn't put as much of himself into studying the playbook or learning to execute plays seamlessly with others. Either way, his results will begin to slip. The public, viewing things from a distance, will only see that yesterday's success, the success that got the guy his picture in the paper, has once again slipped away.
All of the above are actual influences on outcomes that explain why one year's darling fails to produce the following year. Now let's look at the matter of flawed perception as it applies to so-called curses:
- Football is a violent sport. Though a great deal is done to protect players from harm, injuries can and do occur, and those injuries will befall players who are part of particular advertising campaigns or who have recently been featured on magazine covers just as certainly as they befall all others. It is a given that all football players will get hurt at some point during their careers, and in some cases many times during their lives on the field. That an injury coincides with a magazine cover or soup can is no marvel; injuries are an expected part of everyone's experience. Likewise, injuries to others on the team can impact how well the team performs, bringing everyone's results down.
Especially in football (NFL teams play only sixteen regular season games a year), the chance to do well or badly is limited by the number of games. Because this sample size is so small, random events mightily influence results. A team that was slated by Fate to have an 8-and-8 record can end up going 10-and-6 because of an injury on the other side of the ball in one game and a muddy field in another. In another year, those random events will go the other way, taking the previous 10-and-6 team to a 6-and-10 finish, even though the team's overall abilities didn't change one whit. Likewise, a running back who broke loose to rush for fantastic yardage during a couple of games in which the oddsmakers assured all he'd be effectively contained will the next season find himself roped in even during games that should have seen him galloping down the field. The small sample size of only sixteen games will work to increase the impact of any event that takes place within it and therefore skew results derived from it, making kings of cabbages and cabbages of kings.
- Teams that finish high in the standings one year are the next season matched against teams that achieved similar results. Losing teams play losing teams, while winning teams meet their fiercest (and most skilled) rivals. As a result, mediocre teams blessed with soft schedules one year are swiftly cut down to size the next, when their better-than-average results work to pit them against those who actually possess talent and know what to do with it. Many a Cinderella team got to keep the pumpkin it arrived in but little else when, the season after a successful year, the schedule the team's earlier success burdened it with brought it back down.
"Performance curses" generally boil down to the same scenario, no matter what the field of endeavor: wild success results in recognition by others (magazine covers or glowing news articles or gold-toned statuettes presented by scantily-clad young ladies), which prompts expectation of continued dazzlement in the mind of the public. Success is even harder to maintain than it is to achieve, so most of those being lionized in the here-and-now don't keep producing at their previous awe-inspiring rates, either because their natural talents are not enough to see them through or due to the interference of some other factor (such as injury or stronger competition week-in and week-out) invokes the inevitable regression to average. Consequently, today's poster boy becomes tomorrow's goat, a shift the public is at a loss to make head or tail of. Enter the confusion of correlation and causation — that so-and-so had a great season, then became a spokesperson for a particular product and had a less-than-stellar season, is attributed to his appearing on a soup can and thereby triggering the disappointing result. Correlation is not causation: the sun doesn't come up because the rooster crows, yet the former is often mistaken for the latter.
Success (of almost any stripe) breeds expectation. While a company posting average financial results isn't going to be looked to for leadership in its particular sector, a business entity that comes out of nowhere to produce breathtaking sales and profits in one quarter will be expected to match (or beat!) those numbers the next time around. Likewise a football team that goes 8-and-8 one season won't be presumed to set the gridiron afire the next, yet any team that makes it to the playoffs will be expected to match or beat that record the next time around. Similarly, players who enjoyed startlingly good seasons in one year will be expected to do at least equally as well in seasons to come.
Expectation blinds us to the fact that positive results are often extraordinary, and so we judge a return to a more normal state of things as a puzzling fall from grace rather than recognizing that the earlier attainment of great results was a wonderfully fortuitous, if somewhat undeserved, gift from above. When continued success fails to materialize, we'll look for explanations that fit the construct of success being the norm rather than the exception.
We tend to remember events that confirm hypotheses we already favor and forget about ones we don't. We pick and choose among inputs, preserving what strikes our fancy and discarding what doesn't. Because we're dealing only with the data we're attracted to, we'll perceive extraordinary patterns where none exist. Thus folks everywhere are convinced emergency rooms are overrun by patients during full moons, suicides go up around the holidays, the Drano pregnancy test accurately predicts the sex of unborn babies, and every power blackout or similar cataclysmic event is followed nine months later by a baby boom. (The "expected" sharp increase in the birth rate nine months after the September 11 terrorist attacks likewise failed to materialize.) We'll thus notice Kurt Warner (broke his finger two games after being featured on the 9 October 2000 cover of Sports Illustrated and was sidelined for the next five) and immediately have the fabled Sports Illustrated curse spring to mind, but we'll forget that Michael Jordan successfully sustained his superior level of performance in basketball despite appearing on the magazine's cover at least 46 times.
Barbara "cock unsure" Mikkelson
Last updated: 3 February 2005
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- Addis, Dave. "Legend of Curse Grows with List of Victims."
- The [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot. 22 December 2000 (p. B1).
- Madden, Mekeisha. "Soup Curse Is Hot Fable for Some Football Fans."
- The [Tacoma] News Tribune. 26 January 2003.
- Marshall, Christy. "The Saatchis Have McCaffery & McCall Hustling."
- Adweek. 19 March 1984.
- Sones, Bill and Rich Sones. "Sports Illustrated Jinx Is Just the Curse of Statistics."
- Chicago Sun-Times. 28 March 2000 (p. 23).