Rosa Parks. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Is it possible to lower the bar for the entire sportswriting profession? Jen Floyd Engel of Fox Sports certainly gave it the old college try with her much-remarked-upon column where she compared Texas A&M quarterback—the Jäger-bombing, jet-setting, Heisman-winning, scandal-plagued, Broseph-in-Chief—Johnny Manziel with Rosa Parks.
The argument is that Rosa Parks, by refusing to leave her seat on that fateful Montgomery, Alabama, bus, brought about something Engel describes as “the tipping point for many Americans long since tired of these immoral laws.” Similarly, Manziel, by raging against an NCAA that profits off his name while he doesn’t get a dime, could be the spark that leads us to “recognize the immorality and absurdity of a system where everybody can make money off these kids except these kids.”
Others have mashed Engel’s column to a fine paste, but I don’t want to go there. Frankly, I didn’t want to write about this at all. But I’m compelled to do so not to take even more potshots at Engel. I wanted to write about this because of Rosa Parks. 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.
That’s just not who Rosa Parks was. The image of Rosa Parks we are taught in school and that Engel is propagating is of a woman, usually elderly, who was tired and wouldn’t leave her seat, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott. In reality, she was only 42 years old on December 1, 1955, and as she often said, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
In fact Rosa Parks had spent over half her life at this point as an advocate for social justice. After graduating high school and registering to vote in the Deep South of the 1930s, rare enough for a working class African-American woman, she first became active with the NAACP in its national campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine young African-American men wrongly accused of raping a white woman.