Three years later, as he was flaming out of the league, Sports Illustrated declared Mr. Mandarich “The N.F.L.’s Incredible Bust.” In his autobiography, Mr. Mandarich admits that it was accurate, but said he “felt the emotional swift kick in my gut that I believe Sports Illustrated intended when they published it.” He would boycott Sports Illustrated’s reporters for 12 years.
Some were also spooked by the so-called Sports Illustrated cover jinx, which was said to inflict injuries or poor play on those who graced the cover. The jinx itself once made the cover — featuring a photograph of a black cat — and was the subject of a long article exploring whether it was real.
Over the years, as the economics of publishing changed, so did the cover selection.
“It became less of a news thing and more of a personality thing,” said Al Tielemans, a staff photographer for almost 20 years. He described an evolution of editors’ wanting the key moment of the game, and then a good photo of the star of the game, and then a photo featuring the most famous person in the game, and then finally just a headshot of a star.
Last year, perhaps in a bid for celebrity buzz, and possibly as a result of the longer lead time needed to print the magazine, Sports Illustrated named Deion Sanders its Sportsperson of the Year. At one point his Colorado Buffaloes, in his first years as their coach, were 3-0 and No. 18 in the college football rankings. But by the time the magazine with Mr. Sanders on the cover came out, the Buffaloes were 4-8.