According to Stevie Wonder, “Superstition ain’t the way,” but for many sports fans and athletes superstition is the only way. From rally caps and sitting in the same spot for every game to Phiten necklaces and line jumping, superstition and sports have always gone hand in hand.
Even when it comes to sports publications superstition plays a role. Ever heard of the “Madden curse” or the “Sports Illustrated cover jinx”? Many think both are real. Madden is the well-known NFL sports video game where the athlete on the cover is known to be cursed the following season. Most recently Peyton Hillis, who was featured on the cover in 2011, missed games with a hamstring injury. Most notably Michael Vick broke his leg in a preseason game following his appearance on the game’s cover in 2004. Most recently involved in the Sports Illustrated cover jinx were Colin Klein, quarterback for Kansas State, whose team lost their first game of the season and #1 ranking after Klein appeared on the magazine’s November 13th cover. Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera appeared on the October 29th cover and the Tigers got swept in the World Series.
Baseball is easily the sport guilty of the most superstitious fans and players. The rally cap (the act of turning a baseball hat inside out) is well practiced when a team needs a big comeback to win a game. Many players also wear Phiten necklaces. These necklaces and bracelets supposedly stabilize the electric flow that nerves use to communicate with the body.
A squirrel even helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 2011 World Series; fans ran with it. After a squirrel was seen on the field and caused two separate interruptions in play during game three and game four of the NLDS between the Cardinals and the Phillies, Phillies fans proceeded to throw a stuffed squirrel into the St. Louis bullpen. Cardinals pitcher Octavio Dotel retrieved the stuffed rodent and kept in his locker for the remainder of the series.
When the Cardinals won the series, squirrel mania and “rally squirrel” went into full effect. A twitter account for the squirrel was created, rally squirrel T-shirts were sold, and by the 7th game of the World Series which the Cardinals won, a full-blown squirrel costume was running around with the team’s official mascot on the field.
The most superstitious athlete was former Mets pitcher Turk Wendell, who jumped over the base paths to get to the mound, wore a sharks tooth necklace, brushed his teeth between innings, and chewed licorice while pitching.
Some other memorable superstitions among athletes and coaches include Nomar Garciaparra, who had to readjust his batting gloves after every single swing, legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, who chewed on a towel during games, and LSU coach Les Miles, who chews on the field grass.
In the NBA, Michael Jordan wore a pair of UNC basketball shorts under his Bulls uniform, while current Dallas Maverick Jason Terry wears the shorts of the next day’s opposing team to bed the night before a game. He also eats chicken as part of his pregame ritual and wears five different pairs of socks throughout the game.
Why do athletes do this? Will it really make a difference in performance if they win or lose a game? Most who do it say yes. They always have one night where they didn’t do it and they played terribly, therefore reinforcing the notion that it must be done. People are creatures of habit. Perhaps athletes who are in different cities night in and night out are just searching for some kind of consistency in their lives. Sports Psychologists (yes, that is a job) hypothesize that players are always searching for some kind of cause and effect for why they do or don’t play well. When players or coaches can focus in on one thing they run with it because if they stop something terrible might happen.
Superstitions are all in good fun but athletes, even fans for that matter, take them very seriously and one thing is for sure: sports and superstition will forever be linked.
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