Phaidra Knight has the statistics memorized. Out of all the sports shown on TV, just three percent of airtime is dedicated to women’s athletics. Just as distressingly, less than one percent of all sports sponsorship dollars go to female athletes. With the coronavirus further compounding the financial concerns in women’s sports, the tilted landscape could become even more difficult to overcome.
But to Knight, that just means you have to push harder. The second American athlete ever inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, Knight believes opportunity can be salvaged out of crises. With a new clothing line in development, Knight wants to empower female athletes as ambassadors, and shift long-held attitudes around attitude and fashion.
“We have to persevere,” Knight says by phone. “The alternative is, you give up?”
Growing up in small-town Georgia, Knight, who’s openly gay, attended the historically black Alabama State University, just like her mother and father. Enamored with athletics, Knight wanted to play basketball as an undergrad, but wound up focusing on her studies. She discovered rugby at the University of Wisconsin, where she was attending law school and joined the club team. Just a few years later, Knight established herself as one of the best players in the sport, dominating the traditionally British pastime. Knight won 35 caps for the U.S. and appeared at three Women’s Rugby World Cups, in 2002, 2006 and 2010. She was named USA Rugby Player of the Decade.
After retiring in 2017, Knight broke another barrier, becoming an analyst for NBC Sports during the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Dublin, Ireland. A proudly out African-American lesbian, it’s safe to say Knight wasn’t like many of her colleagues. She’s never believed in limitations, and is passionate about helping young people. Knight has coached rugby at Monroe College in the Bronx, New York — the team is largely comprised of black women — and worked with incarcerated teenagers at Rikers Island.
After speaking with Knight for just a few minutes, it’s easy to pick up on her gusto and intensity. Early this year, she announced she’s going to pursue a career in mixed martial age — at 45 years old. Even though her school closed in mid-March, Knight has been training four or five hours per day while in quarantine with her partner outside of Manhattan, doing solo drilling and connecting with one of the blackbelts from her academy.
“This is a mission; I have a tight timeline,” Knight says. “I don’t have 10 or 20 years as a fighter. I have a finite number of years to do that. I’m doing what I need to do to get there.”
In addition to training for her first MMA fight, Knight is working tirelessly on her clothing line, set to launch in August. The PSK Collective is a combination of athletic and streetwear meant to marry the worlds of sports and fashion. Partnering with The Powell Companies Real, a leading apparel manufacturer and distributor, Knight wants to make a big splash. She intends to make decorated female athletes the face of PSK Collective, recruiting a number of notable brand ambassadors, such as USA Rugby player Naya Tapper, USA gold medalist Meryl Davis and retired softball great Jessica Mendoza. There will be 10-12 different ambassadors through the initial six-month push, with a different rotation stepping in every six months to help build the collective.
A large percentage of profits will go to the Women’s Sports Foundation and other organizations supporting women in sports.
“We want this line to be huge. We want this line to grow to be something magnificent,” Knight says. “The bigger this line grows, the bigger platform these athletes will have.”
In order to grow the platform, Knight says they must change patriarchal attitudes, which have always treated women’s athletics as second-class. That starts with visibility, which Knight hopes to provide to a large swath of female competitors — not just top-earners like Serena Williams or Naomi Osaka.
“That’s a consequence of attitudes. You see it with our current Administration. They didn’t create it, but they’ve certainly brought it to the forefront,” Knight says. “We want to take control and provide opportunities for these athletes, and hopefully inspire other companies to follow a similar model and disrupt that way.”
With the coronavirus putting the sports world on pause, Knight believes there is an opportunity to innovate. The future is incredibly uncertain, which means it can be molded.
“This has certainly been an equalizer in many respects,” Knight says. “We can’t give up, but we have to be vigilant and smart, and have hope for the future. Disasters have impacted the world before, but life continued and things returned, and at some point they flourished.”
For Knight, flourishing will mean closing the gaps of investment and visibility between men’s and women’s sports. But she can’t do it alone. That’s where the rest of the community comes in.
“This presents an opportunity for creativity and thinking about things a little bit differently,” she says. “I think we’ve already been on that trajectory. How can we change those statistics? This is an opportunity to just be creative. We’ve fought against this mission since the start of our existence. This puts us all on even ground. We’re at ground zero. It’s an opportunity to actually launch.”