Johnny Manziel is No Rosa Parks by David J. Leonard
by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Johnny Manziel is no Rosa Parks – six words that no one should ever need to type. Yet thanks to Jen Floyd Engel, a FOX Sports columnist, I can now cross this off my bucket list: Johnny Manziel is no Rosa Parks.
Engel, who is clearly a member of the Johnny Football Reclamation project, has gone to great lengths to elevate his importance. With “Manziel case was tipping point,” Engel recast the one time football player by day, partier by night, as a collegiate freedom fighter. That is, his defiance, his refusal to play by the NCAA rules, and his “show me the money” approach to autographs is all part of a plan to bring down the NCAA. Problematic enough, Engel is not content with simply demanding change, that NCAA do it for Johnny.” Manziel is a game changer; a transformative hero within a larger history of struggle.
“Once upon a time in this country, there were ugly, racist, tyrannical rules dictating where a black person could sit on a bus. There were all kinds of these laws, actually, created and defended by the racists who benefited from them,” notes Engel. According to Engel, this chapter in America’s history of racism (notwithstanding subprime loans, stop and frisk, mass incarceration….) ended because an “everyday woman named Rosa Parks, who had grown tired of being tired” said no. She “was merely the tipping point for many Americans long since tired of these immoral laws.” Johnny Manziel, who was also tired, albeit of the NCAA making money off his labor, name, and signature. And according to Engel, he too will lead us to the promise land of reform.
The Parks comparison is so offensive and historically ignorant, I wouldn\’t know where to start (a national reading of Jeanne Theoharis recent book would be a good starting point). Rosa Parks trained, sacrificed, and participated in movement; Johnny is a movement for/about himself. A movement is not Johnny Football, his friend, and his sharpie.
Rather than joining a movement, partnering with a group like National College Players Association (dare I say a modern day sports equivalent of the Highlander Folk School or SCC), or voicing his support for the O’Bannon lawsuit, Manziel followed in the footstep of his capitalism forefathers: he got paid. And now he might get punished for that reported rule violation.
And for that, he is Rosa Parks. He is a tipping point. She writes, “On a much less historically significant scale, so it is with Johnny Football — and no, this is not intended in any way to compare the vast evil of Jim Crow to an incompetent NCAA investigation, or to slings from TV commentators.”
There is so much wrong with the comparison, from the hypocrisy of a writer who chastised Terrelle Pryor for rule’s violations to the historic ignorance about the civil rights movement. Dave Zirin articulates this with great precision and brilliance how misguided and historically myopic the comparison is between Manziel (not yet “an accidental activist”) and Rosa Parks, “the mother of the movement:”
By comparing the two, Engel does more than trivialize the bravery of Parks. She traffics in a myth about who Parks was and why she chose to fight the indignities of the Jim Crow South. In Engel’s telling—and this is the kindest possible interpretation—Manziel, like Parks, is the unconscious activist thrust by circumstance into firing the first shots at an unjust system.
Zirin and several others make clear the many problems of the column. However, as easy as it is to dismiss Engel, her reclamation of Johnny Football, and her denial of the racial implications here (“This has absolutely zero to do with race. What I believe to be true is, after years of watching black kids, white kids and mostly poor kids of all colors villainized for accepting a free sandwich or plane fare to go home and attend a funeral or, God forbid, wanting a cut of the billions of dollars they make for people not doing much in the way of heavy lifting, this was America’s tipping point”) has become commonplace. ESPN might as well start a network dedicated to all things Johnny. This column is a symptom of a larger set issues operating through Manziel.
Race has everything to do with Johnny Manziel. His whiteness matters. It matters when Engel recast this moment as a tipping point; it matters when commentators use this moment to spotlight the hypocrisy of the NCAA; it matters that “he’s just 20” and “he’s behaving like other college students” has become the commonplace defense of his daily transgressions. It matters as we come to grips with fact that he was celebrated as the greatest QB since Tim Tebow Johnny Unitas despite the fact that he lagged statistically behind Oregon’s Marvelous Marcus Mariota in 2012 (who wasn’t even invited to NY for Heisman festivities).
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