Just under a year ago, Maro Itoje popped into his local branch of Waitrose to do some shopping. Despite being one of this country’s finest and most recognisable rugby union players – a 6ft 5in second-row forward who has played in a World Cup final and won virtually every major prize in the club game with his team, Saracens – he still enjoys the luxury of being able to walk the streets of his quiet London neighbourhood largely undisturbed. This, however, would not be one of those occasions.
“So basically, a member of staff mistook me for one of the workers,” he remembers. “This is not the first time this has happened. Normally it’s a member of the public asking me where they can find the milk. This was an actual member of staff; she asked me what time I was starting my shift. Which is ludicrous.” He speaks quietly and evenly. “But it highlights some of the biases people have. And I think this is an experience that’s shared by many people of colour. It shows you how deep-rooted some of these things are.”
He’s measured and contemplative as he recounts this, not angry or resentful, even if he has every reason to be. His voice is soft and smoky; his words weighed and measured with the utmost care; his accent redolent less of his inner-city London upbringing and more of his gilded Harrow education. Rarely among professional athletes, he responds to the question that was actually asked, not the question he wishes had been. For a man who makes his living at the sharp end of professional rugby, a game of high-speed collisions and immense physical power, Itoje is one of life’s thinkers, with a profound awareness of the power of words to change minds.
On the field they describe him as a leader: an ice-cold competitor with a ruthless, restless focus. When we speak, he is one of the favourites to captain the British and Irish Lions, and would be the first black player to do so. Off the field that sense of mission is, if anything, even clearer. As he discusses his attendance at last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, his love of African art, his issues with the educational curriculum and the structural injustices that still afflict young British men and women of colour, I’m struck by one thing above all. As a successful, high-achieving black athlete in a conservative sport, who through his public school education benefited from one of the most inveterate and powerful engines of privilege in existence, Itoje had everything to gain from keeping quiet, becoming an uncontroversial vessel for sporting acclaim and endorsement contracts. So how did an Old Harrovian from a well-off family become so alive to the injustices of the world around him? And having accepted his own responsibility, what is he going to do with it?
We meet over Zoom on a chilly spring evening, just as London is emerging from a long locked-down winter, and the city finally feels alive with possibility again. Itoje is in a taxi on the way home, a little weary after a long day of training and commercial engagements. Then again, to be Maro Itoje right now – a marketable 26-year-old at the very peak of his physical powers and surfing a powerful wave of cultural zeitgeist, with glossy magazine covers and fashion shoots (including a memorable Tatler cover on which he appeared, topless, with Lady Amelia Windsor reclining on him) – is to a large extent a case of embracing everything life can throw at you. “The most quote-unquote ‘celeb’ thing I’ve ever done?” he ponders, repeating the question back to make it clear that was most definitely not his chosen vernacular. “The GQ Awards. Meeting all these different people who I’ve seen on TV. That was fun.”
It’s unusual for several reasons. Traditionally, rugby union has existed along a rough division of labour. The forwards do the physical grunt work of scrummaging and foraging and winning territory; the backs then sweep up and claim the glory with their fancy tricks, clever kicks and lung-busting runs. (Think the lumpen Martin Johnson and the cherubic Jonny Wilkinson.) Forwards get the grudging respect of their fellow professionals; backs get the points, the column inches, the fame, and faces that are still broadly recognisable as faces.
Itoje upends this dichotomy. As a lock, his job is one of the most physically brutal on the pitch: leaping for lineouts, scrambling for the ball on the floor, pummelling and grappling. And yet not only does he do this to a world-class standard, but he manages to do so with a certain grace. Behold that face: a face you would swear had never known the muddy scrape of a flanker’s studs. Somehow, Itoje makes the ugliest job in the game look like the prettiest thing in the world.
When Itoje first burst on to the international scene in 2016, England coach Eddie Jones described him as a Vauxhall Viva who needed to become a BMW. It was a way of underlining the rawness of his potential, a player of sublime technical and physical gifts who was still occasionally prone to bursts of overzealousness and ill-discipline. But even Jones could scarcely have predicted just how quickly Itoje would develop into a world great. Later that year, he was named breakthrough player of the year by World Rugby. The following year, he was the youngest member of the British and Irish Lions squad that earned a scintillating 1-1 drawn series against the All Blacks of New Zealand. Against the same opposition in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, he produced one of England’s greatest second-row performances in a 19-7 victory against the tournament favourites.
In short, English rugby is Itoje’s oyster right now: he is its hottest property and potentially its biggest crossover star since Jonny Wilkinson more than a decade ago. Last year he signed with Roc Nation, the sports management agency owned by Jay-Z, of which Marcus Rashford is also a client. His series of podcasts, Pearl Conversations, featuring interviews with prominent black achievers such as the businessman Ric Lewis and the footballer Eni Aluko, was a resounding success last summer. Already the rest of his career has been plotted out with a draughtsman’s precision. “I want to retire in 2030, around the age of 35,” he says. “Start of a new decade, start of a new challenge. That would be the plan.” He reckons he will probably go into business, and has already started studying for an MBA in his spare time.
But Itoje’s interests have long extended beyond the white lines of the pitch. Later this month, he will be presenting an exhibition called A History Untold at the Signature African Art gallery in London. Featuring work by six African and diaspora artists, it is an attempt to offer an alternative view of African history, spotlighting achievements and pioneers that have largely been overlooked. One of the pieces, a reproduction of an ancient counting stick called the Ishango bone, celebrates Africa’s contribution to mathematics. Another piece, by the sculptor Steve Ekpenisi, represents the tradition of African metallurgy, which foreshadowed the Industrial Revolution in Europe by centuries.
For Itoje, it is the culmination of a longstanding passion, one kindled when he moved into his first apartment in 2015 and wanted to decorate it with African art, only to discover that he could scarcely find any. A visit to an art market in Nigeria, the country of his parents’ birth, offered a kind of epiphany. “I was just blown away by the richness of the art,” he says. “The texture, the shapes, the dynamism. It all really spoke to my soul.” He tries to go back every year and makes sure to pick up a couple of pieces for his collection whenever he does.
But there is a political dimension to all this, too. Itoje is a supporter of the Black Curriculum, a charity that works with schools to teach aspects of black history often elided or suppressed by our education system. “There was this impressive quote that I came across a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “‘Those who control the words and images control the minds of the people.’ And I think the words and images that we have consumed as a society have led to us having a single narrative around the African continent that is… not holistic.”
Itoje thinks a good deal about education: his own, and that of others. As a child of Nigerian parents (his father, Efe, was a businessman, his mother, Florence, a property trader) he admits that he enjoyed an atypical upbringing. After attending St George’s, a state boarding school in Hertfordshire, he won a scholarship to Harrow, where he was a straight-A student and developed the rugby skills that would make his name. He loved his time at Harrow, thrived on the academic and sporting challenge, and with a strong nucleus of fellow British Nigerians to bond with, there was always a tight support network around him. “I was never isolated,” he explains. “If anything, Harrow was even more diverse than the other schools I went to, with the amount of international students who went there. They just had a little bit more money in their pockets.”
Even so, the relative absence of black history from the syllabus felt conspicuous. “We never really got a proper look at African history,” he says. “The Atlantic slave trade, maybe a little bit of Martin Luther King, maybe a little bit on the British empire. And that was it. And while those are important, they don’t fully capture the sense of African history. In all those stories, Africans are the victims. And it makes it seem as if African history literally started with European invasion. What we aspire to do through this exhibition is to tell a different story.”
Too often in public discourse, this issue is framed in narrow, divisive terms: lumped in with toppled statues and renamed streets as a sort of hot-button culture-war media talking point. The truth, as Itoje points out, is that studying black history is not simply of benefit to black people. “This benefits everybody,” he says. “If I have a greater understanding of my neighbour, their contribution to the world, then naturally I have more respect for that person. And secondly, it helps fix some of the unconscious biases we all have: some of them docile, and some of them harmful.”
It was only as he neared the end of his school years that Itoje began to ponder this issue with a little more purpose. His parents had both settled in Britain in the early 1990s, and as he grew up in London with his brother, Jeremy, and sister, Isabel, Maro had always felt as strong an affinity with the country of his heritage as with the country of his birth. The household, he remembers, was “very Nigerian in terms of culture, in terms of the food we ate, in terms of our values”. Meanwhile, the world outside – the world of city streets and polished corridors and manicured rugby fields and establishment morals – felt resolutely British. “It was almost like operating in two different spaces,” he says. “I’ve never really struggled to identify both sides of my identity.”
And yet as he grew into adulthood, he came to a gradual realisation. “Towards the latter end of my school years, about the age of 18, I started thinking that I actually don’t know as much as I would like to know about the continent which I’m originally from. I’d always had an interest, but as you get older you’re able to articulate it and understand it a bit more.” So he went to university, undertaking a course in African politics at Soas University of London. This was where he began to grapple with race, society and politics on a more intellectual level, crystallising his beliefs, developing the thirst for knowledge and understanding that has, in some way, characterised his entire journey.
As his rugby career took off, earning him a first England cap at the age of 21, he developed a reputation as one of the game’s most cerebral and socially engaged players. He declared his opposition to Brexit and advocated a second referendum. He described Jeremy Corbyn as “a breath of fresh air” and spoke out against the “system of patriarchy” that fails to provide equality of opportunity to women. In today’s age of the athlete-activist, perhaps all this seems a little less anomalous, a little less transgressive. But the point is that Itoje was talking about politics long before it was either fashionable or even advisable for a professional sportsperson to do so.
We talk a little more about race in Britain: about the unseen structures and social compacts that affect the lives of black people every day, in big and small ways. We talk about the Sewell report, the controversial government-commissioned study that rebutted the existence of institutional and structural racism in the UK. “To be honest, I found it quite disappointing,” he says. “Of course we’re in a better position than we were 40 or 50 years ago. The report was correct about that. But that doesn’t mean race no longer has an impact on people’s life chances. For black people, or people of minority ethnic backgrounds, the road is often trickier. Or they’re judged more. Or they have to do more. Or they have to face certain hurdles, barriers, obstacles, that their white counterparts don’t necessarily have to face. It was a report that was meant to bring harmony and unite people. And if anything, it drove people further apart.”
We seem to have strayed a long, long way from rugby. Then again, maybe not. After all, sport has been on the frontline of the recent global struggle for black civil rights, whether it is through the silent protest of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL, the activism and advocacy of stars like LeBron James and Naomi Osaka in the US, or Rashford’s admirable campaign to secure school meals for the country’s poorest children. At an institutional level, no sport has been safe from the broader discussion around opportunity, diversity and reputation. This is doubly true of rugby union, a sport that (at least in the south of England) has long been associated with privilege and wealth, in which the ethnic diversity of its personnel has long lagged behind that of the country as a whole. As one of a small (but growing) number of black British rugby union players plying his trade at the top level, Itoje has a unique and precious platform that he has no intention of squandering.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that for all the potential for discord and dissent, for all his own educational privilege, staying silent has never been a realistic option. “I play a sport that has a certain stereotype,” he admits. “Growing up playing rugby, there weren’t too many individuals who looked like me. So I always think about when I was a young player coming up through the game, and wanting to be someone who could connect to that individual, and make them feel more comfortable playing rugby. Representation matters.”
Did anyone in the game ever discourage him from speaking out? “No, no one’s ever done that,” he says. Nevertheless, he admits that taking any sort of moral stance in today’s climate is going to attract a certain measure of hostility. “Obviously I’ve received a bit on socials,” he says. “But I guess it kind of comes with the territory. The reality of life is that not everyone’s going to like me. Some people are going to want to have me do certain things, behave in a certain way. But… I just have to do what I think is right.”
Last summer, he went to a Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park. “I didn’t spend the whole day – because of Covid, I wanted to be sensible,” he says. “But I wanted to see what it was like. I wanted to feel the atmosphere.” He wasn’t expecting to see too many people there. But as he surveyed the vast, socially distanced crowds, one thing struck him: how many white people had turned out in support. This, above all, is what gives him optimism in a landscape in which sources of optimism can often be scarce. “It just highlighted that a lot of people do see the problem,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want the status quo. I feel the desire among a lot of people for society to change.”
For all his commitment to speaking out, Itoje is a very reluctant public figure. He keeps his private life largely private, records his thoughts in a journal, maintains a tight social circle revolving largely around his brother (with whom he shares a house) and his parents, who live just 15 minutes up the road. And for all his off-field pursuits, he still struggles to completely switch off from rugby. “It’s not something you can switch in and out of. It’s almost a lifestyle. Your nine-to-five is when you’re training, but your five-to-nine is equally important, through the choices of what you eat, what time you go to bed, your mental state of mind. That’s not to say I’m always thinking about rugby, but rugby is always influencing my decisions.”
He is desperate to get back to Nigeria at some point this year, having been unable to visit last year because of the pandemic and the year before because of the World Cup. “There was a period when I didn’t go for a number of years, and I felt as if I was losing that little bit of connection,” he says. “So even if I’ve got nothing to do there, I like to go back just for a little bit. Just to reconnect.” Naturally, he will be returning home with some more art for the walls.
How would Itoje’s younger self regard him now? And what advice would he offer? “I think he’d be happy,” he says, and then repeats it. “I wouldn’t tell my younger self anything. Because it’s the experiences that you go through, the things you learn along the way, that make you the person you are.”
On some level, you sense that one of the reasons that Itoje has never tried to pigeonhole or restrict himself is because nobody ever told him he had to. Of course you can play professional rugby and read books on Ghanaian politics in your spare time. Of course you can enjoy a privileged upbringing and still highlight systemic injustice. Of course you can devote yourself wholeheartedly to your sport and still find the time to fight for a cause.
The taxi has finally arrived at its destination and Itoje courteously takes his leave, reminding me to “pop by” and view the exhibition when it opens. Again, I’m struck by how little of this he needs to do. Being one of the world’s best rugby players, representing his country, inspiring the next generation: that would be enough.
But maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at things. “I always think about the type of people whom I admire, especially within sport,” he says. “And while I admire them for being champions and outstanding athletes, I also admire them because they stand for something bigger than their game.” He might still be mistaken for a member of staff in his local Waitrose. But quietly and by degrees, he’s making people listen.