The Harbaugh Bowl: How Sibling Rivalries Play Out in Sports

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Nick Wass / AP

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, left, chats with his brother, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, center, and their father Jack before their NFL football game in Baltimore on Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011.

Jim Harbaugh has a 3-in. height advantage on his big brother John. That quarter-foot edge is less than it seems, since neither brother is exactly lacking in stature, with John clocking in at 6 ft. and Jim at 6' 3". Still, when Jim — head coach of the 9-2 San Francisco 49ers — poses for pictures with John, who holds the same job with the 8-3 Baltimore Ravens, he stands on tiptoe, the better to stretch the height difference and remind his older sib that on this one metric at least, the little brother is actually the big one.

None of that did Jim Harbaugh any good on Thanksgiving night, when Baltimore and San Francisco met in what had been called the Harbaugh Bowl and the Ravens walked away with a close, brutally fought 16-6 win. After the final gun, the brothers met at midfield for the traditional, often grudging, coaches' handshake, but the words they exchanged were decidedly nontraditional. The boom mics didn't catch what John said, but they did pick up Jim's response: "I'm proud of you. I love you too." If that doesn't make you smile at least a little bit, it may be time you switched to rugby.

The Harbaugh siblings are not the only brother-brother pair in the NFL. There's Peyton and Eli Manning, quarterbacks of the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Giants, and there are identical twins Rex and Rob Ryan, head coach and defensive coach of the New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. And those bros are by no means the only notable ones in the long history of organized sports. Baseball had its DiMaggios and Lachemanns and Ripkens. Basketball had its Van Gundys. Hockey had its Sutters, with six brothers all making it to the NHL in the 1970s and 1980s. But it's the Harbaughs who are, at the moment, the best and, so far, happiest example of the sibs-in-sports species, one that too often comes to grief.

The very notion of any two siblings entering the same field — never mind a field in which their comparative success can be parsed down to the last decimal point — is not what nature wants. It's not for nothing that I devote a lot of space in my new book, The Sibling Effect, to the dynamic of sibling rivalry, since we all come into the world hardwired to engage in a fang-and-claw — sometimes life-and-death — competition with our brothers and sisters. Parents have only so many hours, calories and dollars to invest in any one child, and in eras in which food was scarce, every sibling who was added to the family reduced the survival chances of every other one already there, at least by a little.

Animals settle these differences easily. A crested penguin mother that has laid two eggs will simply kick the smaller one out of the nest, the better to focus her attentions on the presumably heartier chick in the bigger shell. A black eagle mother takes a more laissez-faire approach, allowing two eggs to hatch and letting the chicks fight it out between themselves, with the bigger one typically ripping the little one to ribbons.

"The mother just stands around and yawns," Douglas Mock, a professor of zoology at the University of Oklahoma, explained to me. "The function of the second egg is insurance. If the first chick is healthy, the policy is canceled."

Humans, for whom fratricide is typically not part of the menu of options, have developed subtler ways of competing. One of the most effective is what's known as de-identification: keeping an eye on what your older siblings do and then doing the opposite. If a big sister is the serious, scholastic type, a little sister may become more of the goofball artiste, earning parental attention through charm rather than industriousness. If a big brother is a high school football player, a little brother could become one too and get, at most, 50% of the familial applause for excelling on the field, or he could get himself elected student-council president and earn 100% of the attention for that accomplishment.

"Siblings are devilishly clever," says author and family expert Frank Sulloway, of the University of California, Berkeley. "They are constantly trying to fine-tune their niche to squeeze the maximum benefits out of their parents."

If this is true, then picking the same field as your brother or sister feels more like niche-blurring than fine-tuning, and other big-league sibs have shown that that does not always work out. Dom DiMaggio was an All-Star baseballer by almost any measure, with his .298 career batting average and his seven selections to All-Star teams, but most people hear DiMaggio, think of Joe and get no further than that. Billy Ripken was a perfectly serviceable major-league infielder, playing for four teams over 11 years, a career any minor leaguer — never mind any day-dreaming owner of a fantasy team — would walk over glass to have. But Billy was an afterthought compared with big brother Cal.

Other siblings have benefited from defying the de-identification rule. Venus and Serena Williams have both enjoyed explosive success on the tennis circuit, often seeming to drive each other to greater achievement simply by virtue of playing the same game. Paul and Lloyd Waner, infielders who played for multiple teams from the 1920s through the mid-1940s are the only pair of brothers in baseball's Hall of Fame. Lloyd, the younger of the two, was somewhat taller, but he weighed only 150 pounds. Paul was stockier and cut a more intimidating figure at the plate. So tough an out did the Waner brothers prove to be that they became known by the nicknames Big Poison and Little Poison. The monikers suited them well even if in some retellings, the roots of the names came from a Brooklynite trying to say the word person and mispronouncing it. "Them Waners!" the fan is said to have exclaimed. "It's always the little poison on thoid and the big poison on foist."

But the Waners and Williamses are the exceptions. Part of what drives some athletic sibs to chase the same dream — with the same long odds of succeeding equally — is that in some cases, they're merely entering what amounts to the family business. Quarterback Archie Manning and coach Buddy Ryan both thrived in the NFL before their sons followed them there. Coach and manager Cal Ripken Sr. preceded Billy and Cal Jr. into the major leagues. The Harbaugh brothers' father was the head football coach at Western Michigan University and Western Kentucky University.

Even when both siblings live up to the family standards Dad set, the results aren't always as congenial as they were with the Harbaughs. When the Jets beat the Cowboys 27-24 earlier this season, Rex Ryan was perfectly happy to direct a little trash talk Rob's way. "I'd much rather be on this end than the other end," he said. "As much as I love him, I always want to beat him, and that's it."

Still, tough as things can be for sibs in the sports world, nothing touches show business. Filmmaker Ken Burns has been a media darling for years — at least among PBS geeks — for his documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, Prohibition and more. Little brother Ric Burns is less known but won well-deserved acclaim for his masterful New York: A Documentary Film. Yet the brothers have hardly displayed much public warmth.

"A horrifying son of a bitch," is how Ric once described Ken. In response, Ken was lacerating, if more subtly so. "Of all the imitators of my style," he said, "no one has done it better than Ric."

Such cattiness is, happily, less evident in sports, where blows are exchanged more readily than barbs. But that's not to say things will stay pretty this year. "See you in the Super Bowl," was Rex Ryan's parting shot to Rob after the Jets' big win. The struggling Jets and the uneven Cowboys might not make it there. But the surging Ravens and Niners just may. If so, Harbaugh Bowl: The Sequel, could get ugly yet.