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She’s Got Next: Rachel Axon

May 16, 2024

The Olympics may happen once every four years, but the work of athletes and reporters never stops. Currently the Olympics reporter for Sports Business Journal, Rachel Axon is preparing to cover her sixth Olympic Games at Paris in 2024. She spent more than 10 years at USA Today as an Olympics reporter and sports investigative reporter, working extensively on an award-winning series on Title IX. She is an avid runner and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.

The following discussion has been edited for length and clarity:

You were part of a team of reporters at USA Today that produced an award-winning series about Title IX in 2022. What were some of the most surprising things you found in that research?

As reporters, we’re dealing with publicly available data at public schools, but the information that a lawsuit could bring forth, or that the federal government’s Department of Education could bring forth in an investigation, is beyond what we could get. So, if we have kind of this lower level of access and are still finding significant amounts of schools falling short of providing opportunities for girls and women – the scholarship requirement perhaps was the clearest bright line where there were issues – then that really spoke to there being a problem.

The other thing that was surprising was how much schools tried to substitute progress for equity. And by that, I mean, we would go through the data, talk to people, and find schools where [non-compliance with Title IX] seemed like a pretty big issue. The explanation almost always went back to, “we’re doing better.” Fundamentally that’s what they’re saying, but better is not equitable. It’s just not it. We were very cautious about saying if a school complied with, or didn’t comply with, the law, because the Office for Civil Rights may reach a determination that we couldn’t. But I 100 percent believe we raised important issues and pointed out things that have clearly been problems for a long time. 

Some of the editors on this project did not have a background in sports or in Title IX, so we would get questions like, “Why would colleges do it this way?” And the thing I would always go back to explaining is the system was never made for women. We had a system that for decades and decades and decades was made for male athletes. When Title IX came along, it forced athletic programs to make adjustments.

If you were building an athletic program from the ground up, you would do it very differently, right? If you’re starting at zero, and you knew this was one of the mandates on your athletic department, decisions would be different. But the growth of women’s sports came along at a time where priorities were already set and to a large degree, those priorities have not changed.

What do you see as of the biggest opportunities for women’s sports right now? And how can fans and businesses support those opportunities?

I would put it in two buckets – NIL (Name Image Likeness) and Olympic sports.

If we look at where the concentration of investment in women’s sports has been, for decades and decades, it was tennis and golf on the professional level. They are closer to equitable, because they’ve had much longer history, with the caveat being that history is largely based on notions that those are more feminine and acceptable sports. Today, I would say, you have basketball and soccer where the support is concentrated.

Now look at opportunities in the NIL space for college athletes and those are mostly concentrated to male athletes. There’s a looming question about Title IX and how this applies to what schools do, so NIL is an evolving thing. But the money is going to male athletes predominantly. At the same time, there is real growth and popularity around women’s sports. You look at what Nebraska volleyball did to pack a football stadium. There was a recent year where the College Softball World Series had better TV ratings than the College Baseball World Series.

Bridging that disconnect between the real growth and popularity of those college sports and where the NIL money is going is a big opportunity.

The other is the Olympics. And one of the things I like about covering the Olympics is it feels like where Title IX has come to blossom because there’s so much more equity. I would not say this universally. This is not true of every country in the world, and I think Title IX makes the U.S. unique in this regard. Honestly, this is why the Americans have had such an edge. But there’s still a lot of room in women’s Olympic sports, either with individual athletes or with the national governing bodies, where a small amount of investment might make a huge difference. We’re not talking $50 million, but a million dollars might make a huge difference in developing talent and bridging that gap for places that could be cleared and be really super meaningful.

Going to the Olympics is a dream for so many people – from athletes to journalists to marketers. You’re getting ready to cover your sixth Olympics in Paris in 2024. Can you give us a little peek behind the curtain of what it’s like?

Covering the Olympics is the most exciting and exhausting experience I can imagine in sports journalism. There’s literally nothing like it in the volume of what’s going on around you, the volume of work. The demands are for three weeks straight. But what I love is the opportunity behind it.

I’ve done it both ways where I’ve gone with a specific sport to cover and that’s really helpful because you build up sources. You build up knowledge and it helps you to find and tell stories. I’ve been lucky in that regard. I’ve done more winter than summer games and freeskiing and snowboarding were my sports where it’s the X Games kids who are in a halfpipe and slopestyle courses. And those are sports where the Americans are very good, so I was never lacking for good stories about these life-changing moments.

Sometimes, you just get dropped in to cover events. In Tokyo, I covered a lot of gymnastics but also was floating around and was dropped in to cover fencing. I never covered the sport of fencing before in my life and suddenly, I’m taking a crash course. What are the rules? How does this work? Who is good? Who are the medal contenders? You’re trying to find and tell stories and it’s really exhilarating as a journalist. It’s a lot of like adrenaline. You’re on deadline. You’re running around. You’re not sleeping. I mean, 18-hour days are frighteningly common.

In terms of memorable moments, there’s been a ton. My first Olympics was in Sochi, and we worked it out with one of the athletes, freeskier David Wise, to do a story on what the 24 hours are like after you win a medal. He won the gold medal in the halfpipe, and he let me shadow him. So, he got done and I’m going down the mountain with him, going to NBC and other interviews. Then there was a point where we are all in a hotel room – me, his wife, his agent, and some other people – and one of his sponsors had prepared a congratulatory video that was narrated by Morgan Freeman. To see this athlete who’s the best at what he does, but relatively obscure to the rest of the world, have this gold medal moment and then it sinks in, “Oh my gosh, my life is different! Morgan Freeman congratulating me.” I get emotional thinking about it now because you are there at these moments where people’s lives are changing.

Looking at Paris 2024, what are some of the key moments or storylines we should pay attention to?

I think the U.S. women are going to lead that team again. I think just about every Olympics since London, the U.S. women lead the medal count internally and that if they were their own country, would have been about fifth at some of those Summer Olympics. I think Paris will probably be even better if you look at the strength of the team. Women’s water polo has won the last three golds.  Simone Biles has not yet committed but her gymnastics are just beautiful right now. Katie Ledecky is still in the pool. Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone is the world record holder in the 400 hurdles. As a runner myself, I’m particularly interested in the women’s distance events and the U.S. women improving there after Molly Seidel got a marathon medal in Tokyo. I am sure there will be many memorable moments by American men, but I think the most solid prediction that I could make would be that the U.S. women will lead the way again for them.

In this changing media landscape, what advice would you give to young women looking to get into sports journalism?

Well, first, welcome. It is a difficult time for our industry, but to me, this is always a worthwhile profession because you get the opportunity to tell stories, to reveal things, to uncover things, to entertain people, to share the human condition. That said, there are ample opportunities.

To get those first few jobs, I would say, get the reps early. And there’s no such thing too early. I have high school students who reach out to me because they’re trying to get stories published. If you’re in college, do the internships, do extra outside of class in whatever path you’re going in, whether it’s broadcast, or podcasting, or print. Get as many reps as you can. I think that really helped set me apart and prepared me when I was coming out of college.

I would say be as versatile as you can be. The storytelling will be the same and your ethics and requirements as a journalist don’t change. But I’ve been in this business long enough to see many trends come and go. “We’re going to pivot to video,” or “We’re going to post on Facebook.” Look at what Twitter meant to journalism and what it’s become now as X. Being versatile and able to take your reporting skills and apply them in various media is of critical importance. You need to continue to learn and grow as you’re doing it.

The other thing I would say, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. When I was in college, one of my professors, John Hanchette, had worked at USA TODAY. I was doing my honors thesis, and he said, “Oh, reach out to these reporters.” And I was like, they’re not gonna give me the time of day. Why would they? Why would they talk to me? One of those reporters was Erik Brady, who is one of the most delightful humans on this planet and was so giving of his time and perspective. It really affected me in terms of understanding that we journalists want to help. So, I would say don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. If you see someone doing what you want to do, drop them an email. I will also plug the Association for Women in Sports Media, which is a great organization and has nothing but women in this business who are willing to help because as much progress as we have made, we are still a minority. Having those resources to lean on and to help build each other up, I think is one of the best parts about being in this profession.

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