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: 1

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.

Continue reading Sports Do Not Build Character; They Reveal It


  1. 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)