Q: What is the origin of the expression “that’s why they play the game”? Sports announcers say it when an underdog wins a game or when a team comes from behind to win.
A: The sports expression “that’s why they play the game” means playing the game is the only way to determine who wins—in other words, the favored team isn’t always the victor.
The earliest example we’ve seen is from an article headlined “Who’s Going to Win?” in the Oct. 7, 1964, issue of the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Progress.
The article polled teachers and students at two rival high schools before a big football game, and one teacher responded: “I’m not sure who will win. I think that’s why they play the game.”
This is how the word sleuth Barry Popik described the expression in a 2012 post on his Big Apple blog:
“ ‘That’s why they play the game’ is a popular sports adage meaning that the game isn’t decided on paper. One team might have more talent and might be favored to win the game by oddsmakers, but when the game is actually played there is no certainty that the favorite will always win.”
Popik found a newspaper article from the mid-1960s that credited the adage to the Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp:
“But as old Dolph Rupp of Kentucky says, ‘That’s why we play the game to see who’ll win.’ ” (From the Morning Advocate, Baton Rouge, La., Dec. 30, 1965.)
And he cited these later examples, from sports prognosticators of the 1970s:
“The Longhorns, Aggies, Red Raiders and Bears are expected to be runaway winners. But then that’s why they play the games.” (From an Associated Press column in a Texas paper, the Del Rio News-Herald, Nov. 1, 1974.)
“In contrast to last year, the Steelers are favored by about a touchdown. [Pittsburgh Steelers football coach Chuck] Noll, not a one for rash statements, admits he thinks the Steelers are the best team. ‘I think we are, but you have to prove it on the field. That’s why they play the games.’ ” (From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan. 3, 1976.)
We found this more recent example on the sportscaster Dick Stockton’s website. In 2016, he recalled a famous moment in NCAA basketball, “the shocking upset by Villanova over Georgetown in 1985”:
“I was in the stands on a CBS set hosting the game, while Brent Musburger and Billy Packer broadcast the contest. When it ended with a 2-point Wildcat stunner (they were double-digit underdogs), Brent threw it to me and my immediate declaration was ‘that’s why they play the game.’ It goes for any game in any sport where people think the result is a foregone conclusion.”