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Sexual assault survivor’s call to action echoes in ears of NC State athletes

May 16, 2019

NC State’s athletes have heard a lot of guest speakers.

But it didn’t take them long to realize that Brenda Tracy wasn’t going to be one they’d forget anytime soon.

That’s the way that Raymond Harrison, senior associate athletic director at NC State who works with student-athlete development, wanted it.

“You try to figure out who is impactful. What we found was that Brenda was a name that kept popping up,” Harrison said. “The way they talked about the impact, we felt like she was someone we needed to reach out to to get her to speak to our student-athletes at NC State.”

And as Tracy stood up in front of 350-plus male athletes at NC State, she did what she always does: told her story.

As often as she’s done it, it doesn’t get easier. And it’s immediately clear why.

She takes you back to 1998 when she was 24 and went with a girlfriend to small party at an apartment, a gathering that included football players. She doesn’t really drink very often, but decides to make an exception. After one drink, she passes out.

For the next six hours, four men take turns raping her. Her body was so broken that she believes that’s the only reason they stopped.

“It was very hard to kind of sit there and be comfortable,” NC State senior soccer player Vinnie Durand said.

“It was an hour and a half, two-hour session and you could hear a pin drop,” Harrison said. “No one was on social media. People were dialed in. It really resonated.”

“I just stand there by myself, being really as vulnerable as I can and intentionally trying to be vulnerable so that people can really see me and who I am,” Tracy said. “You can see they’re uncomfortable. Sometimes, people hide their faces in their shirts. They look down. They kind of fidget. Some people cry.”

Right off the bat, Tracy tries to make it clear that she could be their mother. But the players immediately realized that she could be any person in their lives.

“I’ve been in college for five years, so you definitely know someone who has been a victim of assault however great, however small,” NC State senior defensive end James Smith-Williams said. “It definitely hits close to home. If you sort of think, hey, I know I have a friend, I have a relative, I have a little sister, there’s so many people that you have that that story could easily be them.”

“I just sat there thinking, what if that was my mom, what if that was my sister? What would I have done if I had found out that happened?” Durand said.

But even as Tracy is going through her story, the men in the room seem to brace for the inevitable – being blamed for what happened to her, or lumped in with her assaulters in some way.

That’s not why Tracy is there, though. Quite the opposite.

“You can kind of see them tense in their shoulders and I say to them, ‘I’m not here because I think you’re the problem. I’m here because I know you’re the solution.’ And you can literally see them lower their shoulders, kind of breathe, exhale and then kind of lean into me,” Tracy said.

“I think that’s what really made it hit home for me, is okay, she’s acknowledging I’m a good person, of course I wouldn’t do anything against women, but it doesn’t matter. Because it’s a problem that needs to be fixed,” Smith-Williams said.

“So her call to action to me was okay, you’re a leader. If you’re truly the man that you say you are, either put some steps in place or a course of action. I think it was just really big for us to say okay, if we truly are who we say we are, what are we going to do? How are we going to be part of the solution?”

Speakers come and go, and even if they resonate in the moment, their messages are often forgotten or less powerful as weeks go by.

Tracy wants the conversation to continue about sexual assault and rape culture. And so far, it has.

“That’s the big thing with me is making sure this conversation doesn’t end. A lot of times you have speakers come in and they’re a hit right away, and then the next week, no one’s talking about it,” Durand said. “What’s really unique about her – it’s been three weeks and we’re still talking about it.”

Smith-Williams has already decided to act, leading a donation drive for Interact, a Wake County non-profit agency that supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

This kind of response is what Harrison and Tracy both wanted.

“So many years, it’s been a women’s issue, It’s not. It’s a human issue,” Harrison said. “It’s us getting our student-athletes to think about the people, the women in their lives who are important to them and reframing it. And Brenda was able to hit that message to where they could receive it.”