Debunking (Or Not) The Myth of Sports Curses

Brendan MonaghanCorrespondent IMay 5, 2008

It’s playoff time in the NBA and NHL, and with the Major League Baseball season well underway (and NFL draft this past weekend), now seems as good a time as any to talk of curses. The cruel nature of sports means that only one team can win it all, which leaves all the others in the sport waiting until next year. But for some, next year never arrives, and even of an era of free agency and variables such as star power and team payrolls, something has to explain a team’s perennial ability to choke in the spotlight. Like a billy goat, for example. Curses can afflict a single team- leaving others in a city unscathed- or an entire city, state, or even country. How then do we separate supernaturally-controlled strings of bad luck with a convenient coincidence or the simple constant of bad play? Well, I’ll do my best.

#1: Curse of the Billy Goat

Perhaps the most (in)famous current curse in sports is that of the lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs. The Cubbies are now entering their 100th year of futility, which may or may not be the fault of a local tavern owner’s goat. The Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t so much as won the National League Pennant since 1945 (both are the longest championship droughts in the sport). The curse was allegedly the invention of Greek national Billy Sianis, whose goat was kicked out of Wrigley Field during the Cubs’ last trip to the Fall Classic.

Supporting Evidence:

   1. 99 years of baseball lore and legend.

   2. Repeated attempts to break- or reverse- “the curse.”

   3. The Black Cat during the 1969 pennant race.

   4. 1984 NLCS Games 3-5 (specifically, the ball through Durham’s legs).

   5. Bartman. ‘Nuff said.

Refuting Evidence:

   1. Seasons 1948-1962, 1964-1966, 1973-1983, 1985-1988, 1990-1992, 1994, 1996-1997, 1999-2000, 2002, 2005-2006. Not just bad, Los Angeles Clippers bad.

   2. Bad players, bad trades and transactions, bad managers, bad front office, bad team.

   3. The team actually benefits financially from the “Lovable Losers” label.

Verdict: CURSE

Whether the curse exists or whether the Cubs are just a profoundly terrible sports franchise doesn’t seem to matter in this case. The fact is the fans believe it exists, and that makes all the difference. If Cubs fans didn’t believe their fortunes could be improved by simply signing (or hanging on to) better players, hiring more competent managers, or making better business decisions, they wouldn’t spend so much time and effort to lift the curse of a billy goat.

#2 The Cleveland Sports Curse

This one makes an appearance every year, when a team from the lakeside is eliminated from postseason contention. When the Brownies, Indians, or Cavaliers finally bite the dust, we’re once again reminded of the unfortunate incidents which all begin with “The.” “The Catch,” “The Drive,” “The Fumble,” and “The Shot” are among the most memorable in this almost annual montage. Within the past year, the Cavaliers have given us “The Sweep” in last year’s Finals and the Indians succumbed to “The Collapse” last October. Cleveland’s last championship in anything was the 1964 NFL Title Game, preceding the Super Bowl. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948, and the Cavaliers are still looking for their first NBA title.

Supporting Evidence:

   1. Lake Effect snow, a depressed economy, the flaming river- God hates Cleveland.

   2. The Major League movie series.

   3. Browns win the Super Bowl (in Baltimore)!!!

   4. The Cleveland Barons (that was an NHL team, by the way).

   5. That year the Cavaliers had, like, four head coaches, traded the #1 draft pick (James Worthy) for nobody, traded Bill Laimbeer for nobody, and played in Richfield, Ohio.

   6. The 1995 and 1997 World Series.

Refuting Evidence:

   1. No single person, phenomenon, event, or circumstance can explain all three (or four) Cleveland teams losing.

   2. Cleveland’s last championship (1964) came AFTER Rocky Colavito was traded (1960).

   3. He was Michael Jordan!

   4. Cleveland’s rivals (in everything) were just better.

Verdict: NO CURSE

ESPN declared Cleveland to be the most cursed city in America, but cursed by what? Better players and better teams, it would seem. Teams from the AL East, NBA’s Central Divison, and AFC Central walked all over the Indians, Cavs, and Browns from the 1960’s well in to the 90’s. Just imagine how well your city would fare if it had the Yankees, Bulls, and Steelers in their teams’ divisions. If there is a curse, a commonality between the three teams, it’s that Cleveland is a small fish in a pond full of piranhas.

#3: The Curse of Billy Penn

The early 1980’s were a great time to be a sports fan in Philadelphia. The Phillies won their first World Series championship in 1980, the Eagles made their first Super Bowl the following January, Doctor J and company were leading the Sixers to the NBA Finals on a regular basis, and the Broad Street Bullies were perennial Stanley Cup contenders. Enter One Liberty Place in 1987, which exceeded the height of William Penn’s statue atop city hall. Legend has it the insulted founder of the City of Brotherly Love imposed a curse on the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers until he once again is the most imposing object on the Philadelphia skyline. Philly hasn’t celebrated a major sports championship since Moses Malone led the “fo’, fo’, fo’” 76ers to the Promised Land in 1983.

Supporting Evidence:

   1. Flyers: 1987 and 1997 Stanley Cup Finals.

   2. Phillies: 1993 World Series.

   3. Sixers: 2001 NBA Finals.

   4. Eagles: 2001-2003 NFC Championships (all at home!), Super Bowl XXXIX.

Refuting Evidence:

   1. Philadelphia teams choked just as easily before One Liberty Place went up.

   2. The Phillies’ 1980 World Series title made them the last original baseball team to win it all.

   3. Sixer chokes in 1977 (NBA Finals), 1980 (NBA Finals), 1981 (blew a 3-1 series lead in the ECF), and 1982 (NBA Finals).

   4. Eagles championship drought dates back to 1960.

Verdict: CURSE

Four teams in one city coming so close so many times in so short a space of time seems like more than a coincidence. We have all the hallmarks of a curse in Philadelphia: unfortunate circumstances, a unifying force (in this case, the specter of William Penn), and what would seem to be a very good reason for ill will. I wouldn’t want to be replaced as the tallest thing in Philadelphia either. Most people will also tell you a serious case of karmic retribution was due against the fans of Philadelphia, who will jeer just about anything. Come on: Santa Claus? Seriously?

#4: Canada

In 1993, the NHL issued it’s most familiar pronouncement: the Montreal Canadiens were Stanley Cup champions, doing so by beating Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. A team from the Great White North has not lifted Lord Stanley’s Cup since, which is understandably quite troubling to many Canadians. The good old hockey game is much more than Canada’s national sport, it’s an integral part of Canada’s national identity and heritage. Hockey, quite simply, defines Canada- in the same way that soccer does for Great Britain or bullfighting does for Spain. For Canada’s trophy- awarded to the winner of Canada’s game- to visit locales such as Dallas, Tampa, Raleigh, and Anaheim can be seen as nothing less than a national disgrace.

Supporting Evidence:

   1. 1994 Vancouver Canucks (lost in seven), 2004 Calgary Flames (lost in seven), 2006 Edmonton Oilers (lost in seven), and 2007 Ottawa Senators (lost in six).

   2. One Presidents’ Trophy since, the 2003 Ottawa Senators, who lost in the conference finals.

   3. Marty McSorley, enough of a bastard to assault Donald Brashear, could certainly have cursed his own country.

Refuting Evidence:

   1. 1994 Vancouver Canucks (seven seed), 2004 Calgary Flames (six seed), 2006 Edmonton Oilers (eight seed), and 2007 Ottawa Senators (four seed).

   2. Last year’s Senators beat the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Buffalo Sabres.

   3. That one team who moved from Canada did just fine.

   4. Hey, at least they still have those World Series trophies.

Verdict: NO CURSE

Let’s face it: the Rangers, Lightning, Hurricanes, and Ducks were simply better teams. That’s why they all had home ice advantage in the Finals, and why they all dispatched of inferior Canadian teams. Also, it’s not like Canadian players are suffering from a Cup drought: last year’s Anaheim Ducks actually had more Canadian players on their roster than the team from Canada’s capital. If there would be a curse in place, the scapegoat would more plausibly be Joe Carter than Marty McSorley. Amazingly, a team from Canada has more-recently won the World Series than the Stanley Cup. Joe Carter’s walk-off homerun in Game Six of the 1993 Fall Classic may well have drawn the ire of American purists who hated seeing a team from Canada win at America’s national pastime. That still doesn’t explain the Raptors, though.

#5: The Buffalo Sports Curse

Anyone who was alive during the 1990’s knows how this one goes. The Buffalo Bills became the first team in NFL history to make four consecutive Super Bowls. In so doing, they also became the first team in NFL history to lose four consecutive Super Bowls. The Sabres’ failures are equally devoid of logic, having never won a Stanley Cup- and not for lack of trying. Theories surrounding the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 suggest he made the mistake of casually mentioning the name of Brett Hull to Buffalo natives. Throwing in the long-since forgotten Buffalo Braves (who now enjoy considerably more success as the Los Angeles Clippers), the city has been without a title since the Bills won the 1965 AFL title. If that even counts.

Supporting Evidence:

   1. Four in a row: Norwood misses wide-right (XXV), Thurman Thomas forgets his helmet (XXVI), nine turnovers and 52 points (XXVII), and a second-half collapse (XXVIII).

   2. 1975 Stanley Cup Finals: indoor fog and a freaking bat!

   3. One of the worst blown calls in the history of sports (No Goal!).

   4. That whole “Music City Miracle” thing.

   5. We had a basketball team, remember?

Refuting Evidence:

   1. Who would curse Buffalo? The 1993 Houston Oilers?

   2. The Bills ran in to increasingly better teams each time.

   3. The Braves were a bad team . . . and then became the Los Angeles Clippers.

Verdict: CURSE

It’s bad enough that the fans of Buffalo sports teams actually have to live in Buffalo, with their predictably crappy weather and their complete lack of anything interesting within the city. But to suffer the slings and arrows of heartbreak so many (consecutive) times would make Richard Simmons melancholy. This curse sets itself apart from all the others in three ways. First, the football team became (and to some extent remains) a running joke, to the point of team members appearing with Marv Levy in a Snickers commercial (“No one is leaving this room until we figure out how!”). Second, the basketball team played terribly, got the hell out of town, and then became a running joke as the Los Angeles Clippers. Third, and perhaps most gut-wrenching, the hockey team was literally cheated out of a championship. Now that’s cursed.


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