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Maro Itoje: rugby union star, art sponsor, activist, political thinker

Maro Itoje has won seven major honors with Saracens, three six-nation championships with England and is a two-time British and Irish Lions tourist

With Jonah Lomu and Jonny Wilkinson as notable exceptions, rugby union has always struggled to generate crossover stars with true global appeal, but Maro Itoje is a man who is increasingly bucking the trend.

The 26 year old Saracens, England and British & Irish Lions forward is known on the field for showing up everywhere, for boundless energy, and it is the same energy that is used off the field that makes Itoje one of the most important Figures of British sport makes.

Itoje urges politicians to act, moderates podcasts and fights for black rights, but also finds time to model for major fashion brands and promote African history and art.

Perhaps once in the UK a black athlete had no choice but to keep his head down and just play the game, Itoje belongs to the generation that does exactly the opposite.

From Tatler to African art

Camden-born Itoje, all six feet tall, has a reputation for transforming everything he touches into success, from winning European Player of the Year at just 21 to inspiring entire stadiums of Lions Fans to sing “Ohhh Maro Itoje” in New Zealand.

He’s also doing well outside of the sport, signing last year with Roc Nation – Jay-Z’s sports management agency who also looks after Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford.

And while it can’t be said that all English rugby players have had a passion for style and fashion in the past, Itoje clearly does.

In 2018 he starred on the cover of Tatler alongside Lady Amelia Windsor – a third cousin of the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex – and has occasionally modeled for Ralph Lauren.

“I’ve always been very influenced by the style you would see in the 90s,” he told GQ. “Growing up, I saw a lot of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and A Different World, and I heard Bobby Brown and Tevin Campbell. They are all dressed so well and I am happy to reproduce that today. “

Marks & Spencer have clearly taken note of the Nigerian-British athlete and made him the face of their latest advertising campaign.

Itoje, whose parents moved to London from Nigeria, is also very interested in the art world. One of the most physically aggressive athletes in world sport, but with an eye for beauty.

In May he presented the exhibition A History Untold at the Signature African Art Gallery in London, with works by six African and diaspora artists.

The exhibition, a resounding success, helped educate about historical African contributions to society in areas such as mathematics and metallurgy that are often overlooked in European culture.

The athlete activist

Itoje is clearly someone who wants to do everything in their power to support education in the UK. In the age of sports activists like Colin Kaepernick, Coco Gauff and Lewis Hamilton, he’s not on the sidelines.

This year, London became the patron of The Black Curriculum, a social enterprise that aims to fill in gaps in the current UK school curriculum by teaching Black British History year-round.

English rugby players Maro Itoje (left) and Anthony Watson kneel before a gameEnglish teammates Itoje and Anthony Watson discussed racial issues in society on the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast in 2020

Last year, Itoje participated in a Black Lives Matter march in London following the assassination of George Floyd in the US and worked with Afro-Caribbean charities to bring about lasting change.

“We are looking at the problem of racism better and more closely,” he said at the time BBC Rugby Union Weekly Podcast.

“If you speak to someone who is wearing headphones, they cannot hear you. Only when they take them off can you communicate.”

Itoje also directed and hosted his own podcast series The Pearl Conversations in 2020, in which he met with the likes of former Labor communications director Alastair Campbell, footballer Eni Aluko and businessman Ric Lewis, the most influential black Brit on the 2019 Powerlist , entertained.

Eni Aluko celebrates victory at JuventusSports director and former English soccer player Aluko joined Itoje on his podcast to talk about Nigerian heritage and the development of women’s football, among other things.

Political thinker

Campbell’s inclusion on this podcast series suggests another great love for Itoje – politics, which he became interested in as a child.

“I come from a household that is not necessarily involved in politics, but is very stubborn on certain issues,” he said in Nick Robinsons Podcast on political thinking. “My brother is quite political, my sister is very political. We always have discussions between us and our parents.”

But more than just a discussion at the family table. After receiving a scholarship from Harrow, Itoje studied politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

As one of the most politically active British athletes today, he has spoken out against male patriarchy and criticized this year’s government-commissioned Sewell report on race and ethnic inequality.

And with the coronavirus pandemic severely impacting children’s education for the past two years, Itoje led a device fundraiser in February to encourage the public to donate replacement tablets to families in need.

Itoje has been delighting the younger generation on the pitch with his boundless energy for almost a decade and is increasingly making waves elsewhere.

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