Once upon a time there was Frank Merriwell of Fardale and Yale; today there is James Simon Kunen of Columbia and SDS. If you have not heard him articulating his radical views on TV talk shows or read reviews of his book The Strawberry Statement—which, liked or disliked, was generally accepted as a valid voice of rebellious youth—you may not know that Kunen was one of the architects of last spring's campus revolt at Columbia. Even less widely known is the fact that he was also a portside oarsman on the Blue and White's lightweight crew. On page 46 Kunen reminisces about his "rowboating" days at Columbia and explains with caustic candor his reasons for dropping out of sports and into rebellion.
"There's no real social value in sports," says Kunen, who can drop a political cliché as neatly as Frank Merriwell ever drop-kicked a field goal. "It's all part of the Protestant ethic, all shot through with capitalist values. The funny thing is, I'm a prisoner of the ethic myself. I have to win. I can't stand to read reviews of books by other kids."
Whatever his hang-ups about competition, Kunen's athletic talents are not inconsiderable. At Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. he swung a mean stick in lacrosse, swam on the intramural team and played the defensive line in lightweight football. "That's a gutty game, football," he says. "It's all tied up with those ego-masculinity things. You have to be sufficiently angry to play it well, and I'm angry." But the high point of his athletic career, he feels, came at summer camp, where he pitched his softball team to victory in two games as a reliever. "Pitching in relief is heroic," he says.
Does Kunen miss the athletic commitment? "Sure, but in a strange way. When people drop out of a sport, they don't suddenly get massively involved in changing the world. Other things fill up the time you once spent on sports. The papers like to imply that an athletic dropout starts smoking grass, but actually a lot of jocks smoke it all along. One ex-crew member at Columbia is one of the bigger dealers in Morningside Heights—and that's going some. Anyway, when you quit playing games you start seeing reality. Crew, which used to be the ultimate in aristocratic sports, is ultimately out of touch with reality. The key to crew is to kill yourself. Then, even if you lose, it's O.K., you've really won. If you kill yourself rowing and win, that's even better. I believe in giving all of yourself for something, but I don't think that something is crew."
June 15, 1969
What is it then? Well, government (in which Kunen is majoring and pulling a B—average) may be one "something." Writing is another possibility. This summer he plans to hitch across the United States, writing spot pieces en route for eight newspapers, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. As with the rest of his life, Kunen has no hard and fast itinerary. "I'm sort of a fatalist," he says with a shake of his neck-long crew cut. "I'm just going to put myself on the road and see what comes of it. The only good competition is with yourself, or with the earth."
That's what Kunen is saying at age 20. The troubles of our day suggest that some American boys, although by no means a majority, go along with him. They all have plenty of time to change their minds more than once.