British education minister admits mixing up Black sportsmen

LONDON (AP) — Britain’s education secretary said Wednesday that he had made a “genuine mistake” by mixing up two Black sportsmen known for their efforts to demand more government help for poor children.

Gavin Williamson, who has faced widespread criticism for his performance during the pandemic, had told London’s Evening Standard that he had met soccer star Marcus Rashford via Zoom. Soon after, his advisers informed the newspaper that he had actually met rugby player Maro Itoje.

Both Rashford and Itoje have used their status to campaign for giving more help to disadvantaged children during the pandemic, which saw schools close for long stretches and inequalities in society widen.

Rashford, 23, has been at the forefront of a campaign against child poverty, which convinced the British government to restore free lunches for thousands of poor children. Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Itoje has sought to help tackle a shortage of laptops in schools, which has harmed many young people in Britain from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“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,” Williamson said. “I have huge respect for both Marcus Rashford and Maro Itoje, who run effective and inspiring campaigns.”

There is widespread speculation that Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson will demote Williamson soon as part of a wider government reshuffling.

Neither Rashford nor Itoje made much of the gaffe, both opting to showcase their good humor.

Rashford, who is from Manchester, said in a tweet alongside a crying laughing emoji: “Accent could have been a giveaway.”

Itoje, who is from London, said on Twitter that as a result of recent speculation he thought it necessary to confirm he was not Rashford: “And whilst we are here my name is not Mario either!! Just a simple Maro Itoje will do …”

Not everyone saw the funny side.

David Lammy, justice spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, called Williamson’s mistake “appalling.”

“You must be the most ignorant, clueless and incapable Education Secretary in the U.K.’s history,” he said on Twitter.

It’s not the first time a Cabinet minister has gotten mixed up with regards to Rashford. In June 2020, then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock accidentally called Rashford “Daniel” during a TV interview. He subsequently said he must have had “Harry Potter” actor Daniel Radcliffe on his mind.