Sports Do Not Build Character; They Reveal It

John Wooden? Heywood Hale Broun? James Michener? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Participation in sports is enjoyable and salubrious for a great many people. One often hears that sports can also build character, but a shrewd remark spins this traditional assertion:

Sports don’t build character; they reveal it.

These words have been attributed to renowned basketball coach John Wooden and influential sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI was published in January 1974 in the “Ames Daily Tribune” of Ames, Iowa. Heywood Hale Broun who was described as an “off-beat sports commentator for CBS television” had recently visited the city and delivered a speech. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1974 January 16, Ames Daily Tribune, Broun: ‘I like to see things done with zest’ by Larry Lockhart (Sports Editor), Quote Page 11, Column 4, Ames, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Some persons say that athletics, and coaches, build character. Broun has a different outlook.

“Anybody who teaches a skill, which coaches do, is admirable. But sport doesn’t build character. Character is built pretty much by the time you’re six or seven. Sports reveals character. Sports heightens your perceptions. Let that be enough.”

Broun expressed this idea more than once, and he employed different phrasings. The popular modern version was a concise and elegant instance.

The evidence linking the adage to John Wooden was weak. It was attributed to him by 2006, but that was many years after it began to circulate. Wooden died in 2010.

Top-notch researcher Barry Popik also explored this topic and located some valuable citations. His webpage is here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On May 2, 1974 an article in “The Salina Journal” of Salina, Kansas reported that Broun was planning to visit the city and present an invited lecture at Kansas Wesleyan University on May 10th. The journalist noted that Broun was a sports commentator and a former actor. The article contained a synthesized instance of the quotation; only the second half of the adage was surrounded by quotation marks. QI conjectures that the first half was a re-worded version of a comment from Broun:[ref] 1974 May 2, The Salina Journal, Heywood Hale Broun will speak at KW, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Salina, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Sports do not build character, he says. “Sports reveal character and I enjoy writing of sports because, I think, madness — the fierce devotion to succeed competitively — is essential to greatness. I write of people who are interesting and not necessarily those whom I like personally.”

On May 12, 1974 “The Salina Journal” published a story about the speech Broun had delivered two days earlier. More than 400 had attended, and Broun had “charmed” the audience. The two phrases of the adage were reversed in this instance:[ref] 1974 May 12, The Salina Journal, He wows them at K-Wesleyan by Barbara Phillips, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Salina, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

“Sports reveals character, it doesn’t build it,” Broun said. “I do not really think it makes you a better person. It is a means of having a good time.”

He quoted Jean-Paul Sartre’s observation that man is most free in sports because it’s the only place he makes the rules.

In 1976 James A. Michener who was well-known for creating a series of bestselling books decided to examine athletics in his non-fiction work titled “Sports in America”. Michener ascribed the common modern version of the saying to Broun:[ref] 1976, Sports in America by James A. Michener, Quote Page 16, Published by Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref][ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Heywood Hale Broun, Quote Page 107, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Heywood Hale Broun, who has written much in this field, has said, ‘Sports do not build character. They reveal it.’ Darrell Royal, of Texas, phrased it this way: ‘Football doesn’t build character. It eliminates the weak ones.’ And a comedian has said, ‘Sport develops not character, but characters.’

In 1996 an article in “The Kokomo Tribune” of Kokomo, Indiana attributed an interesting remark about athletics to John Wooden that differed from the one under examination:[ref] 1996 January 27, The Kokomo Tribune, Christianity and the Super Bowl have some things in common by Terry Mattingly (Scripps Howard News Service), Quote Page A7, Column 3, Kokomo, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

As UCLA basketball legend John Wooden once said, “Yes, sports can build character. But they also can tear down character.”

In 2006 “The Hood County News” of Granbury, Texas printed the aphorism and credited John Wooden:[ref] 2006 June 24, Hood County News, Section: Forum, (Quotation in upper left corner of page), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Granbury, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

‘Sports do not build character. They reveal it.’
—John Wooden

In conclusion, the adage should be credited to Heywood Hale Broun. The versions employed by Broun during speeches were not very elegant. Michener’s book contained a concise well-crafted instance ascribed to Broun, but QI suspects that the statement was probably streamlined.

Image Notes: Picture of group hoisting a trophy from skeeze at Pixabay. Sculpture of two figures clasping hands from waldiwkl at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Κωνσταντίνος Ψύχας (Konstantinos Psychas) whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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