Breaking Barriers, a conversation with trailblazing athletes

By King Williams

Atlanta’s Center for Civil and Human Rights convened a special panel on Jan. 23 to discuss the role of activism in sports and among athletes, particularly those affecting women and the LGBTQ community.

National Center for Civil and Human Rights Credit: Kelly Jordan

National Center for Civil and Human Rights Credit: Kelly Jordan

The title of the panel was: “Breaking Barriers: Sports for Change.” It was part of a rotating exhibition that has been held at two recent Super Bowl cities, Miami in 2016, Houston in 2017 and is now in Atlanta.

Three athletes: WNBA player Layshia Clarendon formerly of the Atlanta Dream; Phaidra Knight, a retired professional rugby player who is from Irwinton, Ga,; and Pat Manuel, the first transgender boxer in the history of the United States to have a professional fight.

Prior to the panel, these three athletes visited with SaportaReport to respond to few questions on the state of their respective sports.

SaportaReport: Because of your story as being the first trans boxer, do you see yourself as a trailblazer for the sport?

Pat Manuel: “First and foremost I’m an athlete… I hope I’m a trailblazer for the sport. I know that there are other trans boxers, and they’ve reached out. I know that there will be more of us. I’m glad that I got to be the first to open the doors, and it will be other trans boxers who will go further than I can go.”

SaportaReport: In-terms of being a female athlete in your sport (basketball) regarding income disparity, do you feel like progress is being made, or is there still a long way to go?

Layshia Clarendon: “I feel like progress is being made, and it still has a long ways to go. We (WNBA players association) opted out of CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement). That’s the first time that’s happened for our league, and that’s a big step forward.
“We know that our league is young. We’ve only been around for 22 years going on now. Our ask isn’t to be paid like LeBron James. But there are a lot of things we want across the league like travel, safety, arena quality and of course better pay. We know that’s not going to be exactly equal, but it’s going in the right direction.”

SaportaReport: Your sport isn’t a sport we see a lot of young Black people play. What do you say to people who haven’t seen Black people play before?

Phaidra Knight: (Laughs) “I say, keep your eyes open. You said there are not a lot of girls playing that sport. When I was a young girl I wanted to play football, and I did every chance I got. I know there are a lot of girls that feel the way I feel, but it was never in any organized capacity. It wasn’t until I discovered rugby in law school, that I saw a new life for me.”

2019 Breaking Barriers panelists:
Far (L) Pat Manuel, Professional Boxer Center (L) Phaidra Knight, US Rugby Center (R) Layshia Clarendon, WNBA Far (R) Michael Sam, NFL
photo by King Williams

SaportaReport: So how do you see rugby taking off?

Phaidra Knight: “There are going to be more opportunities, through television to see it. And with reintroduction of Rugby in the 2016 Olympics, that raised the profile a bit. But in 2020, we’re going to blow the doors off the hinges.”
“The cool thing about Rugby is that it’s inclusive. Any kid no matter what size, shape, athletic skill level or color they can play. They can run with the ball; they can defend; they can play every element the game offers. With the World Cup coming in 2019, a successful U.S. team could do that.”

SaportaReport: Where do you see long-term the status of the trans community in the world of all sports, not just boxing? Embrace or push back?

Pat Manuel: “There’s definite push back in society right now. There is an administration (Trump) that is literally trying to erase us and say that we have to go by the gender we’ve been assigned at birth – that your genitalia are an indication of who you are. The Supreme Court just upheld the ban on the military. We’re still having to fight for our basic rights to go to the bathroom, to get healthcare, to be treated as human.”
“I see sports often reflecting society. I see sports as catalyst for changing society. Also, just as this exhibit (Breaking Barriers) shows, the more there are trans athletes in sports, the more that we’re able to push the conversation forward. Once they see us as humans, they see that we’re deserving of the same rights as everyone.”

SaportaReport: How difficult is it as an athlete financially with a sport that’s still growing in popularity?

Phaidra Knight: “I played for 18 years for the United States, and as a whole for 20. I retired in 2017. I was one of the first women professional rugby players in the United States. I was paid to play, and as a woman you don’t get paid to play. They select 20 players to train in Chula Vista, formerly the Olympic training center and they get paid modestly.”
“Particularly as a woman, there aren’t as many paid opportunities in the United States right now. Many of us are working hard to change that narrative. There is men’s professional rugby in the United States, but outside of the United States they get paid a pretty penny internationally. Depending on what teams or leagues, you can get paid as high as $1 million internationally.”
“There is a team coming to Atlanta in 2020, and as the game commercializes, the more there will be more opportunities for sponsorships and to pay your bills.”

Pat Manuel, the first transgendered professional boxer in a photo with Saporta Report columnist King Williams
photo by King Williams

SaportaReport: If you could change one thing about the business what would it be?

Layshia Clarendon: [Laughs] “I can’t give anything away from our collective bargaining agreement but I think it would be lifting the core for us.”
(The core designation gives that team exclusive negotiating rights with the player. Players can receive a core designation only four times in their career.)
“Currently, there is not a lot of player movement as there is in the NBA. When NBA free agency happens, it’s so exciting. But our players mostly get core’d, and I think it would be great to see more WNBA players move across teams. With more player movement in our league, it builds more excitement in our league, and it builds fan engagement.”

SaportaReport: Has it been easier finding endorsements or financing, as a male or female boxer?

Pat Manuel: “I think they’ve been both bad – to keep it real. For me, coming from the female [boxing] division to the male division, there was the emotional maturity that developed within me during that time to ask my community for help. During the Olympic trials time, I was working three jobs to pay for physical therapy, and I was selling shirts for fundraising.”
“I had to listen to those in our community who were saying we want to help you. Organizations like Trans-Latina Coalition, Transgender Law Center, Flux and the Women’s Work Foundation, who gave me a grant. There were all of these LGBTQ organizations that saw me as part of them and saw the work I was doing in the community prior to my transition. But, in terms of mainstream endorsements, I don’t have any, yet.”

SaportaReport: What would you tell the 2009 version of yourself, knowing all of the things you know today?

Layshia Clarendon: “I would tell myself that you’re going to be okay. Just ride the wave, there’s going be so many ups and downs in terms of playing and performing – especially now after being traded twice.”

SaportaReport: We don’t hear that often with athletes, the experience of being traded. So what does that feel like?

Layshia Clarendon: “When I was traded from Indiana to Atlanta, I felt betrayed. I was pretty naive as to how the business works, I saw myself playing there for a long time.
“Obviously, it’s very rare to see an athlete stay in one city for their entire career. It just doesn’t happen. When you see Dirk Nowitzki play 20 years for the Dallas Mavericks [NBA] or Tamika Catchings, who I played with in Indiana (Fever), there for 14-plus years, it’s hard for athletes. We’re asked to be there all in for a team and sold this narrative that we’re a family.
“I’m just not naive anymore. When we get traded or sign to another team, you see people burn jerseys. But when a player gets traded, you don’t think about what that’s like to get up and move your entire life in 24 hours.”
“When I got traded from Atlanta (Dream) to Connecticut (Sun) this year, with in 24 hours I was in a new city. I had to move with my wife, my dog, all of my things, and the next day I was playing with a new team. It’s very uprooting. It’s hard.”

SaportaReport: Knowing all the things you know now, what would you tell your 18 year-old self?

Phaidra Knight: “Keep hold of your non-athletic, professional pursuits outside of the sport. Work hard. Build a network around you. I had a network of people around me. What did they gain from it? Nothing. Maybe they gained the satisfaction of helping me become one of the best professional sports players in the world.”
“Always show the gratitude and give that love back to those who gave it to you. And when it’s time to hang up those boots and retire, support some other rugby players.”

SaportaReport: In your story, do you see your story as a trailblazer for the future of boxing or for transgender athletes?

Phaidra Knight: “First and foremost, I’m an athlete. I hope I’m a trailblazer for the sport. I know that there are other trans boxers, and they’ve reached out. I know that there will be more of us. I’m glad that I got to be the first to open the doors, and it will be other trans boxers who will go further than I can go.”

Former Atlanta Dream player Layshia Clarendon (now Connecticut Sun) and retired US professional Rugby player Phaidra Knight
photo by King Williams

SaportaReport: So do you see yourself participating in the Olympics in 2020?

Pat Manuel: “Nooo (Laughs)… I can answer that immediately. The moment I stopped going by Patricio, my dream went out the window. But also when I dislocated my shoulder in the 2012 Olympics trials competing as female boxer is when my Olympic dreams died.
(For female boxers): “That is the top – the Olympics. We’ve been struggling having places in the female ranks. As a male athlete my opportunities are better.”

SaportaReport: What athlete broke barriers for you?

Phaidra Knight: “Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I’ve always looked up to Jabbar. I grew up in a small town in Georgia, called Irwinton, Ga. My dad put a goal at the end of one of our produce fields, and I’d watch Jabbar on TV and then mimic what he did outside.”
“Arthur Ashe is someone who resonates with me. He wasn’t flashy. He was a very quiet guy. His activism and he did a lot to try to raise awareness for people who were affected by HIV/AIDS. His cousin Mason Ashe is one of my closest friends.”

Layshia Clarendon: “I love Serena, her strength, her embodiment of what it means to be a Black woman, to be strong, to be beautiful, to be powerful. So often we’re (Black women) put in boxes. When Serena’s on, I don’t care. I’m watching anything she’s in. She’s been such a great hero for Black women.”

SaportaReport: What is making you happy?

Pat Manuel: “I’ve spent six years getting to this point of where I’m at today – six years, with so many bumps in the road – from finding opponents, facing injury and surpassing all of them with flying colors.”

Layshia Clarendon: “Mindfulness lately. Being in the present moment, it’s so easy to be caught up in the season, being traded and thinking where is my career going. I’m trying to be very mindful lately.”

Phaidra Knight: “Being present, living life, serving others. I recently started a nonprofit that’s currently starting in New York and then will go hopefully nationwide. My organization delivers rugby to incarcerated youth, and that truly makes me happy. Selfishly for myself, I’m a sportscaster with ESPN, NBC Sports and soon CBS Sports to do rugby broadcasts, and that makes me happy.”

Breaking Barriers is currently on display at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. It opened on Jan. 23, and it will remain on display until March 29.

King Williams is a multimedia documentary film director and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s documentary “The Atlanta Way: A Documentary on Gentrification” will be released this Summer. He is an associate producer on the upcoming Sara Burns (daughter of documentarian Ken Burns)/Dave McMahon’s 2019 documentary – ‘East Lake’ – on the former East Lake Meadows housing project. King can be reached at [email protected] or @iamkingwilliams on Instagram and Twitter. His number is: 470-310-1795.

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