Written by Howard University Student Nyah Hardmon, Presented by Beats By Dre
Maro Itoje is not your typical rugby player; the Saracens club and England national team member is anything but average. Instead, the Nigerian-British athlete plays in a league of his \\own, with his keen sense of self separating him from the pack.
As a Black athlete playing within a predominantly white league, Itoje’s experience differs from that of his teammates. Because the origins of rugby lie within the elitist culture of British gentlemen schooling, the foundation of the sport is rooted in a sense of exclusion. Even the expansion of the practice to new countries was often done under the caveat of colonialism, presenting a complicated relationship with players of color as natives of the land who did not always have access to the game.
In Nigeria, the birthplace of Itoje’s parents, rugby was first introduced with teams primarily composed of white settlers and foreigners. Thus, even with modern formations of more diverse organizations like the London Nigerian Rugby Club, Itoje’s upbringing within the sport has always deviated from the historical norm.
“Being a Black rugby player, you’re often one of the minority in a team,” Itoje admits. “The teams I play for, they’re brilliant and they’re very inclusive but the experience of being the other is an experience that most of my teammates would not necessarily have to experience.”
Yet, Itoje has proven that playing with people who don’t look like him is no challenge for his success within the industry. This ability to float above any cultural obstacles that come his way is something he attributes to his parents and their insistence that he stays grounded in who he is, where he comes from, and what he represents. Instead of trying to blend in with the crowd, Itoje chooses to stand out and stays faithful to himself.
“Within team sport, there’s always a bit of pressure to conform to the team, and it’s necessary to a certain degree otherwise the team wouldn’t be able to function, but there are times when things don’t necessarily mesh too smoothly,” Itoje says. “With those times, it’s about having a strong identity of who you are and the things that are important to you.”
For Itoje, a key part of who he is lies within his Nigerian heritage. With frequent trips to his family’s homeland, Itoje has always been connected to the West African country and its culture. Despite living in England, a nation with a different set of values, norms and traditions, Itoje uses conversations with friends and colleagues to celebrate this facet of his identity and educate others on his heritage.
“Being Nigerian is a very strong part of who I am and I think that whole background has shaped the person I am today,” Itoje says. “I think it’s the lens in which I see the world. It’s shaped me as a man, so that part of my identity is very special to me and it’s a part of my identity that I do hold close to my heart.”
Representing his heritage does not stop once Itoje steps off the field. His ventures outside of rugby and his profession allow him to further his efforts in cultural enlightenment. Through his passion for art, Itoje is able to place African artwork on a pedestal, shining a light on stories often overlooked. In an exhibit he helped curate at London’s Signature African Art Gallery entitled A History Untold, Itoje addresses minority misrepresentation head-on, using the creative medium to highlight Black contributions to society that often go unnoticed. The exhibit, which opened in May, is a love letter to the Black and African cultures Itoje wishes were celebrated more often.
“Art is the love affair that I’ve had for a couple of years now— in particular African art,” Itoje reveals. “I’m still able to use that as a means to celebrate my culture and I’m still able to appreciate the art forms. Even though I’m a rugby player, I still have the time to delve into that passion project of mine.”
While A History Untold exhibit tackles underrepresented populations through art, Itoje’s work with the social enterprise Black Curriculum brings this conversation into schools. The organization aims to widen the scope of Black history education, exposing students to the diversity that composes the Black experience over time. Since Itoje has always valued education, the collaboration was a perfect fit, offering the athlete an opportunity to correct the misrepresentation he experienced when he was younger.
“When I was in school, the only parts of Black history that were taught were the slave trade, the Civil Rights Movement in America and maybe a little bit on colonialism. While those three areas of history are important, it tells a single story with regards to African history, with regards to Black history, it doesn’t tell the full picture and I think that’s problematic on a number of fronts,” Itoje says.
From art to history, Itoje’s interests stretch well beyond the scope of sports, something that more and more teams are beginning to witness as the rise of athlete activism takes form. Itoje chalks up this recent trend to athletes embracing the multitudes of humanity.
Even though rugby is an instrumental part of Itoje’s life, he always restricted the sport to representing a portion of who he is rather than completely defining his persona. This allowed space for other interests like fashion and art, giving them room to flourish
alongside his athleticism. Still, this concept of athletes being multifaceted is an adjustment to leagues unaccustomed to viewing team members outside of their uniforms.
“People always have their beliefs of how you should behave and there’s certain things you do in your life that you’ll always get a little bit of pushback on,” Itoje says. “At the end of the day, you only have one life and you have to navigate that life the way you see fit. The way I’ve always seen it is to make the most of all the opportunities that I have and make sure I’m living life the way I want to live my life as opposed to the way others see I should live my life.”
This pledge to remaining true to himself includes making space for tough conversations. When discussing racism and discrimination, Itoje highlights the differing points of view of others to help them understand experiences outside of their own. He believes that these discussions have a place within rugby especially, as the sport still has room to grow in terms of inclusion and representation.
“Diversity of opinion is good and it should be encouraged, but with things as important as racism and discrimination, I think it’s important to have conversations. I think the moment we stop talking to one another is the moment things start to go in a very very negative way,” Itoje said.
Between dominating on the field, exploring his creativity and educating others, Itoje’s daily routine never lacks diversity. While he may not view himself as the outspoken advocate others paint him as, his presence in the industry adds to the pantheon of athletes who have redefined what it means to be more than an athlete, inspiring a new generation of players unafraid to chase what is important to them without sacrificing their careers. And when he’s not initiating necessary exchanges or using the smooth sounds of Keith Sweat to calm down, Itoje’s focus lies in being a role model for those that come after him.
“I often think of myself as trying to be the individual that I would have looked up to as a young player growing up,” Itoje said. “One thing I’ve always tried to do is always be the authentic ‘Maro,’ because I think when you’re authentic, when you’re yourself, whatever happens you can always walk with your head held high.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORNyah Hardmon is a junior journalism major at Howard University. She has worked as a writing fellow with the Washington Independent Review of Books as well as an on-air personality intern with WHUR. She was also part of the inaugural HBCU internship cohort at Universal Music Group. Nyah is an award winning spoken word poet with her original work featured in PoetryMagazine. She has received national recognition from the YoungArts Foundation and the U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts.