Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.
Phaidra Knight

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women’s Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.

Born on a farm in Irwinton, Georgia, Phaidra was introduced to rugby at the University of Wisconsin Law School. 

“I met a young lady at a party and she invited me to try out for rugby,” Knight recalled. “I’d never heard of rugby. She characterized it as being like football and soccer. Then she said ‘tackle’ and I was like ‘I’m there.’ I went to a practice the next week, and that was it.” (souce, Wikipedia)

A former member of the Board of Directors for the Village Lions, we spoke with Phaidra to get her perspective on the Black experience in American rugby.

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.

It was not easy as a black woman, a very aggressive one nonetheless, who was often penalized or carded for “tackling too hard” (something that doesn’t exist).  But the friendships I made, the amount that I grew from literally falling down and getting back up weekend after weekend, and the enhancement of my work ethic made every yellow card well worth it.

Phaidra Knight

What was it about rugby that made you try the sport?

I loved the contact and evasion aspects of the game at first sight.  But very soon after being introduced to the sport, I realized that the camaraderie and unconditional acceptance offered extended to me by the rugby community was why I kept coming back.     

For many decades here in the US, rugby has not attracted very many Black athletes. What is your perspective on why that was the case?

I think there are a few reasons why this is the case.  At the higher level, Black athletes engage in sports that are financially sustainable for them.  Historically, in the US, there has been little to no money for the mass majority of players, even those playing at the highest level. As a result, rugby ends up losing out on many of these athletes to track and field, basketball, football, and soccer. 

Rugby has been played predominantly by Whites in the US, with the exception of some inner-city youth programs.  In this case, like has gravitated to like and in combination with no unified effort to engage blacks in the sport, the result has been very small numbers of Black athletes playing the sport. For a number of the Blacks that actually do play, they have become somewhat disenchanted with the sport because they are either stuck on the wing or at flanker rather than being developed in decision making roles.

Only 3.2% of sports media is dedicated to women’s sports.  Most of that TV time is dedicated to basketball, tennis, and soccer, not rugby.  In order for Black girls and women to be in it, they need to see it, hear it, read it.  The more we can both get the message out there about the achievements of Black rugby players, specifically women, and integrate women’s rugby into the media, the more we can raise the overall profile and attract more to the sport.

Phaidra Knight

What is your personal experience as a Black woman entering into rugby? 

Overall, my experience has been positively life changing.  It was not easy as a black woman, a very aggressive one nonetheless, who was often penalized or carded for “tackling too hard” (something that doesn’t exist).  But the friendships I made, the amount that I grew from literally falling down and getting back up weekend after weekend, and the enhancement of my work ethic made every yellow card well worth it.

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.

You are the most accomplished American rugby player in history. Do you think that has opened the door to other Black athletes to pursue the sport? How about women specifically?

I certainly hope so.  However, only 3.2% of sports media is dedicated to women’s sports.  Most of that TV time is dedicated to basketball, tennis, and soccer, not rugby.  In order for Black girls and women to be in it, they need to see it, hear it, read it.  The more we can both get the message out there about the achievements of Black rugby players, specifically women, and integrate women’s rugby into the media, the more we can raise the overall profile and attract more to the sport. 

What are the best pathways for Black athletes to get into rugby?

The best pathway is to get involved through their local club.  For those, with some experience, looking to get some HP [“High Performance” – editor] exposure playing with others of African diaspora, there is Roots Rugby.   I tip my hat to Kyle and Tiana Granby for founding Roots Rugby and the Board that helps to keep it thriving. 

Rugby has provided me with the opportunity to realize my World Class potential.  It gave me an extended family to supplement my biological one. It provided a safe setting for me to work through so much emotional trauma manifested during childhood.  It really helped me to understand the importance of “teamwork” and understand that it extends much further than the folks taking the pitch.

Phaidra Knight

How has rugby enhanced your life?

Rugby has provided me with the opportunity to realize my World Class potential.  It gave me an extended family to supplement my biological one. It provided a safe setting for me to work through so much emotional trauma manifested during childhood.  It really helped me to understand the importance of “teamwork” and understand that it extends much further than the folks taking the pitch. 

In your Love Letter to Rugby, you shared, 

“Because you are small today, you have the opportunity to build the foundation correctly so that it is strong and equitable for all.” 

Especially in light of the current struggles at USA Rugby, what do you see as being the path to accomplishing that and what are the key pillars?

You also share: 

“…make a genuine and impactful investment in urban and economically disadvantaged areas.  From these marginalized communities, you will find the best talent and create a feeder system that will fuel championship teams for decades to come. You are capable of being a sport that every child has access to, regardless of financial circumstances.”

We couldn’t agree more. Understanding the responsibility belongs to everyone, what is your perspective on concrete examples of this occurring in any category that we can point to and what actionable steps would you suggest the rugby community to take to meet this goal? 

Do we focus on grassroots youth, or do we focus on converting great athletes into ruggers?

I believe we must give attention to both.   A focus on the grassroots level is going to not only create sustainability in growth, but it will also create the exposure needed to garner the attention of great athletes.  High performance rugby, whether it be National Team, professional, or any of the pathways to get to those levels, is the product that can gain media attention and inspire young people (an older ones) to engage.  Combining this element with well-organized rugby programs that are readily available to school aged children, ideally interscholastically, will help the sport’s popularity soar.   

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.

Who are the heroes that inspire you?

The heroes that inspire me the most are those who have had a direct impact on me.  I draw an incredible amount of inspiration from my parents, especially my mother, Mary Knight.  She is one of the hardest working, most loyal and most benevolent human beings I know. Growing up, I remember watching her work around the house with such admiration.  She never stopped, always moving from one thing to another. She is constantly evolving and growing. A woman in her 70s running seven plus miles per day is pretty kick ass.   

I was inspired by most of my rugby coaches.  But as of recent, I am particularly inspired by Black Rob, my MMA coach.  His attention to detail is second to none. He loves what he does and that undeniable passion motivates me on my flattest days to be my best.    

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.

As it regards film, I am inspired by actress and friend Halle Berry.  I have seen, firsthand, the diligence, time, and energy this woman puts into her work to ensure that she still remains one of the best in the business.   She is proof that talent plus hard work equals excellence.    

Phaidra Knight was a US Eagle from 1999 to 2017. She played in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, and won All-World Team honors in the first two World Cups. Phaidra was named USA Rugby's Player of the Decade in 2010. World Rugby inducted Phaidra into the World Rugby Hall of Fame on November 10, 2017.