Twenty years ago, Brenda Tracy was raped by a pair of Oregon State football players.
Powerless to do anything then against the athletes, Tracy watched her rapists walk away with just a single-game suspension. Nothing more.
She was cheated out of justice by a system that is the sprawling enterprise of college football that chose to protect its players.
Now, she’s doing all she can to make sure that practice of protecting athletes stops. She’s going around the country to talk to different collegiate athletic programs to educate them on the issues.
On Thursday, that journey took her to Columbus, where she spoke in front of the men’s basketball and football programs. She relayed her traumatic story to them, told them about how the system had failed her. She told them how to be men.
Then, she asked them to make a pledge. A pledge to set the expectation that mistreatment and sexual abuse of women will not be tolerated. She has called it #SetTheExpectation.
“One of the things I noticed right away as I was travelling the country working with different programs, big programs and small programs, was that there were some coaches saying these behaviors are harmful…and then I recognized that other coaches were not having this conversation,” Tracy said. “In an effort to try to get all these coaches on one page I decided to create a pledge that basically attaches eligibility to behavior. Meaning sexual assault and physical violence are never OK.”
Tracy was raped by two Oregon State football players in 1998, who were then protected by the system. But starting in 2014 with legislative work Tracy began fighting back against that system.
Then in 2016, Tracy began talking to teams, the first, perhaps fittingly, being a Nebraska Cornhuskers team coached by Mike Riley. The head coach at Oregon State when Tracy was raped, and the coach that did not properly discipline Tracy’s rapists.
“Coach Mike Riley is part of my story,” Tracy said. “I ended up going to Nebraska Summer of 2016, meeting him and talking to his team. That story of me meeting him, because he gave my rapist a one-game suspension in 1998, went viral. From there, other teams just started calling.”
Now two years later, and with Tracy’s work picking up momentum — the Arizona State and Stanford football teams played the first major #SetTheExpectation game last year — Tracy visited Ohio State.
Tracy has told her story many times, but she said she still gets nervous before she does. It can be intimidating going in front of all these men and trying to change a culture, she said.
“I was a victim of this machine as many are. To feel like I’m working within that machine now to make a difference is kind of, I don’t know if you’d call it full circle, but it does feel intimidating,” she said. “I am walking into a room full of strangers and a room full of men and sharing the very worst moment of my life in very graphic detail.”
Tracy was invited by head basketball coach Chris Holtmann who reached out to the football team about attending the event.
Tracy’s visit was scheduled well in advance, but ending up falling on the same week as news broke about wide receivers coach Zach Smith’s past of domestic abuse was brought to light and led to his firing. Tracy said she did not bring up the situation during her visit to Ohio State for the meeting was not about head football coach Urban Meyer or Smith; it was about the players.
“My message is about men getting involved and engaged,” Tracy said. “All of it relates to any campus, and the campuses with something going on in the media, but it never really changes.”
“I was a victim of this machine as many are. To feel like I’m working within that machine now to make a difference is kind of, I don’t know if you’d call it full circle, but it does feel intimidating.”
But Tracy did have thoughts on Meyer’s response to the situation and shared them for the first time. She said she agreed with the firing of Smith, but said it probably should have happened sooner.
“What I will say is that Urban Meyer’s comments and the rhetoric are really indicative of a huge misunderstanding of the dynamics of domestic violence,” Tracy said. “There’s some education that needs to happen there and I think that it would be good for people to educate themselves; reach out to people like me, reach out to advocates in your community.
“If anything I think his comments really showed a lack of understanding and I think that’s really commonplace in this nation.”
In general, Tracy’s work places a large focus on the importance of coaches in setting the culture with Tracy working on a curriculum specifically designed to educate coaches.
“Many of these coaches are acting as parental figures, a lot of these guys are acting as father-type figures, mentors,” Tracy said. “They have a lot of power in what they do and what they say and what they don’t do and what they don’t say. They really have an opportunity to impact culture and impact these young lives.”
Tracy said ultimately her work is about humanity and she, as a mother of her own two sons, sees the humanity in the men with whom she works.
“I want society to start caring about these men,” she said. “Especially in sports, our athletes have become commodities…they’re more than athletes, they’re human beings.”
Tracy was well received by all the players, with many tweeting out #SetTheExpectation and Holtmann extending his thanks on social media.
Holtmann’s gratitude was not all that Tracy left campus with though. She also received a commitment from the coach to participate in a #SetTheExpectation game to raise awareness.
“Coach Holtmann committed to doing a ‘Set The Expectation’ game for the basketball season coming up and the women’s team also wants to be involved,” Tracy said. “I will be back and I will be working with the basketball programs and I am super excited about that. Ohio State is a big program and I think they can make a huge impact on our culture.”
Tracy’s message came to Columbus and left a major impact, and she will be back sometime soon for a game supporting her cause, but her work will continue to grow as she fights to change a culture that has victimized far too many women.
Right now Tracy is amazed by how far her movement has come. And she plans to take it further.
“For me personally, it makes what I went through OK. I feel like what I went through wasn’t in vain,” she said. “I can take that pain and turn it into a purpose.”