Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
We have all heard of the concept of “finding your purpose in life.” Sometimes we are born knowing exactly what we want to do and be. And other times, we just live our lives and allow “that calling” to organically appear to us. Phaidra Knight, the first Black woman to be inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, is proof of the latter. She walked onto a field of rugby players not even knowing what the sport was or how it was played. And 13 years later, she became rugby’s Player of the Decade.
It was a hot summer afternoon when Knight stepped out of her car in a full sweatsuit and onto the field, where she was tossed a football. She immediately began bobbing and weaving her way to the end zone. “Touch it down!” the players shouted, as they watched Knight become an instant success. “I didn’t even know what to do with the ball.” This was the beginning of an imminently victorious journey.
In the spring of 1997, Knight was approached about the sport. “I was at a law school party and a woman asked me if I had ever played rugby,” says Knight. “I had no idea what it was.” She listened as the woman began describing the sport as a combination of basketball, football and soccer—plus tackling. Then she extended an invitation to a training session a few days later. Knight, who was focused on making the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team, wasn’t very tuned in to the conversation. But the thing that did resonate with her was tackling element of the game.
“I kind of haphazardly took a ride out that Monday, and stopped by [the field],” she says. “I walked up and they were practicing, and they just threw me right in. I was like, ‘Wait. I have no idea what the sport is. I've never seen it.’” They told her she would learn as she played. “All I remember is that they tossed me the ball and I ran through everyone and ended up in the try zone [or end zone], and I didn't know what to do with the ball. They said, ‘You have to touch it down in order to score.’ And that was it. I just fell in love with it.”
The diversity of the rugby club was appealing to Knight, too. She grew up in Irwinton, Ga., and attended Alabama State for undergrad. So being on a team of people from various backgrounds in terms of gender, race and ethnicity was a new and refreshing experience. “There were two other Black women. And in Wisconsin, because there's not very many Black people, even two out of about 15 was a lot. And you had Asian players and Jewish players. It was such a great mix of amazing people.” Knight began training with them. And at that point she had no idea there was a U.S. team. She just loved the sport and the fact that she could run through people—and tackle them. “No one had ever given me that license,” says Knight, who currently holds a world scoring record. “And so it was awesome.”
Living a dual life, attorney at sunrise and athlete at sunset, was beginning to take a toll on Knight. She continued to play rugby after she graduated from law school. It was pretty much impossible to separate the two parts of her life. Eventually she was working for a large firm in Chicago while playing internationally—“a pretty crazy juggle,” she says. Once she decided to give rugby her all, she left the law firm, citing that she wasn't happy or cut out for that life.
Knight wanted to devote a large share of her energy to being one of the top rugby players in one of the best programs in the country. So she moved to New York and became an entrepreneur, starting a cleaning company, which gave her the flexibility to train and travel on her own schedule. She has gone through many career iterations. Ultimately, it was important to do things that aligned with her athletic endeavors: rugby coach at Princeton and Columbia; vice president of a girls and women's program at Play Rugby USA; a writer for the Rugby Football Foundation; and a personal trainer were some of the jobs that she enjoyed, all while playing rugby at the highest level. In 2016, Knight also tried out for the U.S. Olympic team.
Fashion is another fulfilling endeavor. Knight, who was wearing one of her rugby jerseys during our interview, describes her PSK Collective clothing collection as having an “athletic-meets-streetwear vibe.”
“It was inspired out of my desire to make a difference with social justice movements and causes that are near and dear to me,” she says of the collection. It also allowed her to focus on her love of fashion and to create a line that would really represent and fit athletic bodies. “We will always contribute at least 15% of our net profits to charitable organizations,” says Knight, who also has a nonprofit, PeaK Unleashed. “That's just a part of the core of our company.”
PeaK Unleashed, consisting predominantly of Black and brown boys, is dedicated to marginalized youth through rugby, yoga and educational services. “[The sport] is not in every high school or middle school,” says Knight, adding that it boils down to exposure. “There was an organization that recently started a nonprofit to bring rugby to both men and women in HBCUs.
“Howard University’s women's program took off this year. And so that's great. We're going to see more and more rugby in HBCUs, which hopefully will filter down to others. Then we can start helping and aligning with the rugby community to really expose the sport to more Black and brown youth.”
Broadcasting was also something that Knight wanted to do when she retired from rugby. “I started taking little opportunities and doing national championships and learning along the way,” says Knight, who played for 20 years. “Then I got some bigger roles [that led to] commentating the Olympics this past summer.”
Her on-air passion coupled with her stellar athletic abilities would later land her a role in Halle Berry’s new film Bruised. How did she manage that? Being in the right place at the right time. “When I decided that I wanted to do mixed martial arts [MMA], I was on vacation,” says Knight, who reached out to her voice coach, Denise Woods, when she got back in town. “I told her that I was coming out of retirement, and I want to be a mixed martial artist and one day compete for a world championship. She was like, ‘Oh, my God. Girl, you're not going to believe this. Halle Berry literally left my office an hour ago. She just brought in her script. She's getting ready to do her directorial debut and be the lead actress in a movie about an MMA fighter who was a has-been and who's making a comeback.”
Of course, Knight couldn’t believe it. But she quickly came to her senses when Woods connected the Academy Award–winning actress with the international rugby champion. They exchanged emails and planned to get together. Later that summer Knight was training at her NYC academy. And who was in the gym? You guessed it, Ms. Berry. Her bodyguard, who Knight also knows, was not amenable to allowing Knight to say hello. But the actor recognized Knight and ran up to her. “She walked by and said hi. And as she passed me, she turned around and she started yelling my name. Then she came over and hugged me,” Knight says.
“I've always wanted to be in television, and I want to do hosting on a major level,” says Knight, who recognizes that Berry has raw talent and works very hard, which is why she's award-winning. “I definitely want to go beyond sports. Do I have the raw [acting] talent? No. But it's definitely worth a try,” says Knight, who thinks she did pretty well in her scene and drew inspiration from Berry's hard work on the film.
Impeccable work ethic is in her DNA. “I grew up working hard on a small farm as early as 5 years old,” she says, adding that her parents wanted to instill the same values in her and her sister. “They both grew up working really hard on farms. They wanted to bring a piece of that to us because they thought it was a really core ingredient to just being independent and to be able to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. I was always with my dad, wanted to go with him to pig sales and to help him tend to the pigs and the cows. The first vehicle I drove was a tractor. Like that's normal for a 5-year-old.”
The perfect combination of acting and MMA may be on the horizon for Knight, who recently joked with her friend, Olympic medalist bobsledder Aja Evans, about costarring in a film one day. “We were talking last week at the Women's Sports Foundation dinner and Aja said, ‘I would love to be in Black Panther,’” says Knight, who currently mixes motivational speaking with training full time for MMA. “‘I would, too. You and I should be in it when they actually bring in women to [costar]. We should definitely be the two people that are fighting.’ And we did a pinky swear and agreed that it's going to happen.”
Bryna Jean-Marie is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multichannel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.