UK education minister Williamson criticised for black sportsmen gaffe

Soccer player Marcus Rashford (L) and rugby player Maro Itoje. REUTERS/Files

LONDON (Reuters) - British education minister Gavin Williamson came under fire on Wednesday for confusing two black campaigning sportsmen, claiming to have to have met with soccer player Marcus Rashford when in fact it had been rugby player Maro Itoje.

In an interview with the Evening Standard newspaper, Williamson said he had had a Zoom meeting with Rashford, who led a high-profile campaign to pressure the government to extend the provision of free meals to poorer children to include school holiday times.

"He seemed incredibly engaged, compassionate and charming but then he had to shoot off. I didn’t want to be the one that was holding him back from his training," the newspaper quoted Williamson as saying.

The paper then added that the minister's aides later clarified he had actually met Itoje, and that he had never had any direct communication with Rashford, who was honoured by Queen Elizabeth last year for his campaign.

Itoje campaigned to tackle a shortage of laptops for disadvantaged school children learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Towards the end of a wide-ranging interview in which I talked about both the laptops and school meals campaigns, I conflated the issues and made a genuine mistake. We corrected this with the journalist before publication of the story," Williamson said in a statement.

"I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje who run effective and inspiring campaigns."

Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party tweeted: "According to @GavinWilliamson a black man from Wythenshawe who plays football for England looks the same as a black man from North London who plays rugby for England."

Referencing the story, Manchester United and England forward Rashford, one of several players who has been targeted with online racist abuse, tweeted: "Accent could have been a giveaway" followed by a laughing emoji.

Itoje also might light of the story.

"Due to recent speculation I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford," he said on Twitter, signing his message: "Much love, Marcu... I mean Maro Itoje."

Williamson has faced much criticism over the last year for his handling of school closures and exams during the pandemic, with political commentators saying his position was in jeopardy should Prime Minister Boris Johnson reshuffle his team.

Black Labour lawmaker David Lammy described the mix-up as "appalling".

"Gavin Williamson must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable Education Secretary in the UK's history," he said.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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