Many thanks for the kind messages about the podcast I launched a few weeks ago with my daughter Grace, Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. We have been very lucky in the guests so far – Ed Miliband, Rachel Riley, Jamie Carragher, Ebony Rainford-Brent and rugby star Maro Itoje, and the timing for this week’s guest, Gabby Logan, couldn’t be better, with England through to the quarter finals of the Women’s World Cup. Gabby is fronting the BBC’s coverage, with viewing figures surpassing all expectations, and likely to keep rising now England are progressing through the knock-out stages.
The ‘Gabby Logan one’ will be posted on Wednesday, so meanwhile ‘the Maro Itoje one’ is up there for your delectation. And below is a piece I wrote for The Times on the man set to become one of the stars of the Rugby World Cup, with a big brain to match the brawn.
When we first sat down with Ed Miliband a few weeks ago, his first words were ‘welcome to the podcast community,’ which tbh I thought was a bit winky-wanky … but as you will see, one of the first subjects raised by Maro Itoje, who was educated at Harrow, was that his views on private education had been influenced by a discussion on Ed’s podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful. And while we are on the subject of Labour politicians, I got a very nice message from Liverpool fan John McDonnell, who had listened to ‘the Jamie Carragher one.’ Here’s hoping it moves him to get the Party to cut through the obfuscation and prevarication over my appeal against expulsion. The file of unanswered letters and emails is growing, suggesting to me they know they don’t have much of a leg to stand on.
Anyway, here is Maro … and as you will see, we talked about a whole lot more than football, feminism or rugby.
— We are barely a quarter of an hour in, and we’ve already done Brexit, why he thinks Jeremy Corbyn won’t be Prime Minister, and now this Old Harrovian is telling us that a podcast by Corbyn’s predecessor has opened his mind to the possible damage that private schools do to society. Fair to say that Maro Itoje is not your typical sportsman, and this is turning out not to be a typical sports interview.
‘I was listening to Ed Miliband’s podcast, Reasons to be Cheerful, and it highlighted issues about how private education increases inequality,’ he says. ‘I had not really thought about that. When he was running to be Prime Minister, he wanted to do something about their charitable status, didn’t he, and I can see what he is getting at.’ Then, Itoje suggests he might favour something more radical. ‘I would not go so far as to say abolish private schools but some reform would definitely be beneficial.’
He waxes lyrical about the State school in Colindale, run by his club, Saracens. ‘It’s in a very deprived area of North East London, and it’s great initiative by the club. There is a lot of effort goes into helping kids from an under-privileged background.’
Itoje, born and raised in North London, comes from a ‘reasonably well-off’ Nigerian family, and his educational journey took him to two extremes of the British political spectrum. ‘We had one left-wing economics teacher at Harrow who hated Margaret Thatcher, but most of the teachers were very very right-wing. At my first politics lesson, the teacher asked “if there was an election tomorrow, who would vote Labour?” I put my hand up. I look around, there is one other hand raised. “Who would vote Liberal Democrat?” he asks. No hands go up. “Who would vote Tory?” The rest of the class put their hands up.’ He laughs at the memory. ‘So right wing.’
But his next stop on the education journey, made while he was also becoming an established player for club and country, was a 2.1 politics degree at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. ‘It was a different world. SOAS is so left wing.’
As to where it has left him politically … ‘I am centre left. I’m not just saying this because it’s you, but I liked New Labour. I like Tony Blair. I don’t feel any of the parties today represent my point of view or how I look at the world. If there is an election tomorrow I am voting Liberal Democrat.’
He voted Remain in the referendum, hopes there can be another referendum and that we stay, but admits: ‘I am suffering Brexit fatigue. At this point I am going to the realms of “make a decision either way.”’ The whole exercise, he says, has been a ‘classic difference between theory and practical. In theory go off and make great deals. In reality it’s not going to happen. If you compare what we have now compared to what we have if we leave the EU …’ He shrugs. He knows I agree. We agree about a lot.
I first met Itoje when he was a rising star, just beginning to make his name with England. Team manager Richard Hill, who I met working on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, asked if I would see him to talk about pressure, profile – and politics. ‘He’s got something special about him,’ Hill told me. ‘You’ll like him.’ He does. I do.
He made a similar impression on my daughter Grace, joining me for our most recent meeting, an interview at Saracens’ stadium in Barnet, for our podcast, Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. ‘Wow,’ she says at one point, after she has asked Itoje to ‘define feminism,’ and he says: ‘For me it comes down to freedom and equality. Equality and freedom. It is about females having the freedom to choose the life they want to live and pull down the barriers to let them express themselves.’
He passionately defends Caster Semenya, the South African athlete whose testosterone levels have become the subject of global debate. ‘I do understand the complexities but she has not done anything to enhance her performance apart from be herself.’ And we agree there is something of an irony in the fact that a sport obsessed with doping sees the solution to the Semenya problem as … taking drugs.
He launches too into a defence of writer Afua Hirsch, who had no truck with any defence of Danny Baker using a picture of a monkey to comment on the new-born child of Meghan Markle. ‘Her description of it was amazing … when she said she was sick to death of having to explain the effects of racism. One of the panellists made an argument that if it is not intended to be racist it is not racist – I think certain actions are just racist.’
He feels his blackness deeply. ‘It is a very important part of who I am.’ We ask all our podcast guests to name a ‘six-a-side team to change the world, three men, three women, dead or alive.’ Of Itoje’s choices, only Mother Teresa is white. She is joined by Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah, Michelle Obama and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie. He said he had struggled to finalise the list, adding: ‘Oprah is on my bench. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are on the bench too.’
We discuss Raheem Sterling, and the footballer’s powerful denunciation of subtle racism in sports reporting. White Phil Foden buys a house for his Mum – lovely story; black Tosin Adarabioyo does the same – flashy, overpaid, why is he able to afford that? ‘This is not just about sport,’ says Itoje. ‘This covers how black people are portrayed in any kind of news, there is always a difference. When they report a murder of a white male, it’s a teenage boy from a loving family in the suburbs, brutally murdered. When it’s a black boy murdered, he was “wearing a hoodie” – the tone in which they report these things is so different.
‘It’s the same in punditry —a lot of the time when they describe black players they talk about athleticism, their power, their speed. They don’t talk so much about their skill, their deft touch. It’s about their physical attributes.’
He says he encountered no racism at Harrow, that he had ‘not really’ experienced it on or off the pitch as a player, but he has caveats. ‘My experience is not the typical experience of a black man in London because sport is one of the few disciplines or institutions based on merit – should be anyway. We look up to people who play sport so the way they treat me is different to how they treat people identical to me who don’t play sport. I am aware my experience is very different to the way another black person will be treated. That affects people’s interaction with me.’ And, though he ‘can’t easily recall’ direct racism from opposing fans, he adds: ‘I’m sure it would have [happened] but it has not stuck in the memory. Racial abuse on the field I have not personally had, but I have friends who have, in county rugby growing up. I know someone who was abused racially in the under 20s World Cup, so that problem is not fully stamped out.’
I ask if he would ever consider walking off the field of play if he did encounter the kind of abuse Sterling had. ‘It is hard to say unless you are in the moment. It would depend. If I walked out and the whole stadium was abusing me, I am caught between two minds – nobody should be made to play in front of abusive fans. But I am also thinking – 1, show them and 2, do they win if you walk off?’
It is partly crowd behaviour, as much as the fact of rugby becoming his life and career, that ended his love affair with football – that and the realisation that he was ‘wasting too much emotional energy’ on Arsenal. ‘Till I was about fifteen, I loved it, got the stickers, all that. But being an Arsenal fan brings you down. I was watching a midweek match against Liverpool, it was real tit for tat. I was so emotionally invested in the game. Theo Walcott dribbled the whole pitch and scored, I went crazy. The next minute Liverpool scored, 4-3, I was reduced to tears. I thought to myself “why get so upset? You are not getting paid, there is no material benefit from this, it is just stress.” From that day on I took a step back, regained my emotional level of control.’ ‘Wow,’ Grace says once more, impressed at the clinical coolness, drawing the contrast with her father’s inability to stop the ups and downs of Burnley FC affecting his own moods.
Then he describes another more recent midweek game, Arsenal v Spurs. ‘I was taken aback by the way the fans behaved, towards each other, towards the players. If I had children, unless I had a box I would not take my child because the behaviour was disgraceful. I saw little kids, ten, twelve-year-olds watching their parents swearing, abusing Arsene Wenger, abusing the players. This small boy sees his father do it and so he does it, starts spouting abuse at players, at opposing fans. Horrible.’
Then there is the conduct of players. I ask if he thinks having a microphone and camera on the referee’s body, as in rugby, might stamp out abuse and backchat overnight. But he sees the issue as being about culture, not rules. ‘The difference between rugby and football is that we are penalised for bad language or talking back. The more you do it, the more you damage your team.’
But what if the referee makes an obvious error? ‘You try to reason, alert him to the TMO, but you have to do it politely. There is a self-policing aspect to it. If someone is consistently doing it to the detriment of the team, you call them out.’
Grace, not the biggest sports fan in the world, is getting an education here. But then, having listened to a lesson in on-pitch etiquette with regard to match officials, she seems confused about a very different approach when he talks about the importance of hurting opponents.
‘It is a collision-based sport,’ says Itoje, currently weighing in at 118kilos. We have a player who is 140 kilograms, another who is 135. None of the front row is under 115kgs. These are fit, agile, huge men and we are all running at each other full pelt trying to cause some damage. You want to physically hurt your opponent because that is part of the game. You don’t want to do something illegal, but you want to hurt them.’
‘But not breaking bones?’
‘Breaking bones is part of the game. You don’t set out of break bones. You hit them as hard as you can. In a collision-based sport, the more collisions you win, the likelier you are to win the game. Dominate the collisions and your team is probably going to be on the front foot and win.’
So far, with a cupboard groaning with medals and trophies, three European and four (check) English titles with Saracens, Player of the Match in their latest Premiership final earlier this month, two Six Nations triumphs with England and a Lions tour already behind him, a World Cup on the horizon, he has been relatively lucky. A hand and a jaw are the only serious breaks he’s suffered. ‘The jaw was the worst. I was in agony. In ag-on-y. Someone went to catch, he caught the ball, he stepped off one of his feet and went into me as I went to tackle, his head went into my jaw and it broke … Ag-on-y.’
It is partly that medal haul, but also his size and, frankly, his wisdom, that makes it hard to believe he is still only 24. He is a big reader, not just a big podcast-listener. He is interested in business, reads a lot about it, may well follow his father Efe down that route. But what about politics, I ask? How about ten years in sport, ten years in business, then ten years in politics …
‘And then you become the first black Prime Minister?’ Grace adds.
He laughs, then shakes his head. ‘To get to a position to make meaningful change you have to give up so much of yourself.’
‘Same in sport,’ I say. ‘You give your all.’
‘You have to compromise on your values and the end product is not a true reflection of what you believe.’
‘I don’t think we compromised on our values as New Labour,’ I say. ‘I think Thatcher did what she believed in.’
‘Maybe,’ he says.
He is not convinced. But he’s not saying no. And I’m saying keep an eye out for Maro Itoje, whatever he does with the rest of his life.