From brutal assault to social justice advocate: Brenda Tracy sees solutions in student-athletes
As 350 student-athletes file in to Hunt Auditorium, all men, the person they’re all here to see is off in the corner, facing away from the steadily-growing crowd.
It’s a who’s-who of NC State athletics, as administrators, coaches and players arrive. Some carry to-go boxes that contain their dinner, as it’s 7 p.m. The rain has been torrential off and on all day, but it had slowed considerably as everyone was making their way inside.
Raymond Harrison, NC State’s senior associate athletic director in student-athlete engagement, gets up first. He wants to remind everyone to give the speaker their undivided attention even though there’s a national championship game between Virginia and Texas Tech that is hours away.
He tells them they might hear some things that are disturbing, and directs them to Dr. Keino Miller, one of their staff sports psychologists, should they have any issues.
He also tells them to think about the women in their lives who are important to them as their guest talks to them about what’s to come.
And then, one of the only women in the room takes the stage.
She echoes Harrison’s warning.
“If you just have a little bit of compassion and empathy for another human,” Brenda Tracy says, “you may be upset by what happened to me.”
She asks them to raise their hand if they’re under the age of 24.
Almost everyone does.
“I ask you that because my sons are 24 and 26. So if you raised your hand, I could literally be your mother,” Tracy says. It’s an important clarification point, as she does not look old enough to be their mother.
“I want you to think about that as I’m sharing my story: like, really, what if I was? What if I were your mom and I was standing here sharing my story and you were my son and you were sitting on that side?”
It’s a nice dose of perspective, but as she had said previously, anyone capable of human empathy would be moved by her story.
And perhaps ‘moved’ isn’t even the right word when the story is Tracy’s survival – giving new meaning to that word, too. She was gang-raped by four men back in 1998.
Tracy starts with the requisite background, though. Like the men she’s talking to, she was an athlete. She played volleyball and basketball growing up in Oregon. She was supposed to go to college on a Division I scholarship.
But then she got pregnant as a high school senior.
The father of her children was black, and when some of Tracy’s family found out that fact, they didn’t like it. Her grandmother disowned her. She would marry the father and get pregnant with her second son again not long after. But it was a relationship filled with abuse, especially when he drank, she said, and she left him.
“If I stayed,” she said, “one of us was going to die.”
That’s the context for the story she’s about to tell this room full of athletes, the prelude to the night in 1998 when her life – already full of tumult – was thrown into utter darkness and despair.
She thought she was on the other side of her abusive relationship. She was happy. She had started dating a football player at Oregon State. And her best friend at the time was dating one, too.
The two young women would go to Corvallis for games and for parties, of course, although Tracy didn’t drink much. She grew up in a household with alcoholism and, considering how much worse her own abuse became when her ex-husband drank, she liked to keep her wits about her.
“I just needed to be in control of myself and other people,” Tracy said, “and you can’t do that if you’re drunk.”
But when her friend invited Tracy to the apartment that her boyfriend shared with another Oregon State football player, she didn’t think twice.
Michael Ainsworth, a brother of one of the players and one of the top recruits in the country at wide receiver, was in town. He was headed to Cal in the fall to play football. He’d brought Nakia Ware, a junior college player and friend who was also on probation for armed robbery, with him. Another Oregon State football player, a backup running back named Jason Dandridge, joined the group later.
Everyone was just hanging out when they started encouraging Tracy to drink. They knew that she didn’t very often, but they told her to make an exception.
“Then they just kept asking me, like, ‘Brenda, just have a drink. You never drink with us. This one night, just have a drink. You can stay here. You can crash on the couch. It’s not a big deal. Just have a drink.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll have a drink. I’ll have one.’”
So she did. A gin and orange juice, as she recalls now. She didn’t like it at first – it was too strong, and she didn’t even care for the taste of alcohol – so the player went back with her drink into the kitchen and maybe added orange juice to it, but she said it still tasted bad to her.
She choked some down anyway, and she estimated she was about four ounces in when she started to feel strange. Her face flushed, she said, and she felt “warm from the inside out.” She thought she just had a low alcohol tolerance and she was already getting drunk somehow, and everyone laughed about it, including her.
But then she started to feel sick. The room, as she said, started to move.
She was sitting on a couch facing her friend and the friend’s boyfriend. She remembers locking eyes with him and thinking that she was going to pass out.
“And as I was thinking that and I was looking at him, he stood up, he put his hand out, and he took my friend’s hand. He walked her into the back bedroom of the apartment, which meant that I was then left in the living room by myself with the four men,” Tracy said.
What happened next is something Tracy estimates she only remembers “about 10 percent” of, but that 10 percent is more than enough.
It lasted about six hours, according to statements by the perpetrators and police reports, and the flashes of memory she does have from her attack are horrific.
Her voice doesn’t waver in her retelling of this story until she gets to the first time she came to after passing out. She was lying on her back naked and couldn’t move her arms and legs. But she could move her head.
And as she did, she saw four men either committing, attempting to commit or preparing to commit various forms of sexual assault against her, from every possible angle.
Her eyes filled with tears.
“I also remember in that moment feeling like I was trying to say, ‘Stop’,” she said, her voice finally breaking, ”‘What are you doing?’ ‘Why can’t I move?’ But I don’t know that I was able to make the words and say it because I was trying so hard to stay awake.”
She paces the stage sideways slowly and deliberately, wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, moving seemingly for the sake of it. She looks out into the audience but not at anyone.
At this point, she’s pausing a lot – not for effect, but to collect herself as she wipes tears away with the middle of her bent finger, her hand balled in a fist.
“I remember,” she says, “that they were laughing. I remember they high-fived each other a few times. It was almost like they were congratulating each other on their performance when they took turns.”
Tracy woke up again later to find one of the men cradling her head and attempting to pour alcohol down her throat. She choked on it, and she passed out again. The next time she came to, she told them that she was going to throw up.
One of the men carried her to the bathroom, laid her over the counter and shoved her head into the sink to throw up, cutting her forehead on the faucet. She ended up throwing up on herself as he raped her from behind.
She doesn’t remember much after that, except the end. She was so swollen that the men could no longer penetrate her, so they tried to put ice on her to ease the swelling. It didn’t work.
“I actually think that’s probably the only reason my attack stopped, is that they literally couldn’t,” Tracy said.
She covers her mouth to choke back a sob before she goes on.
And at this point, the entire room of nearly 400 NC State student athletes is completely silent.
Tracy recounted waking up the next morning and finding herself facedown on the living room floor, still naked. Someone had tossed a throw blanket over her. She pulled herself off the floor and found a dried condom stuck to her stomach. There was still vomit in one side of her hair, and gum – that eventually had to be cut out – was stuck in the other side.
And she’d been in that position on the floor so long that she had chip and food crumbs stuck to her torso, leaving indentations in her skin.
“I mostly just remember in that moment feeling like a piece of trash,” she said, almost spitting the last word out with contempt. “I just felt like a piece of trash they had forgotten on the floor and went to bed. I could have just been a red SOLO cup laying there. I didn’t even feel like a human.”
It’s a horrific story, and it’s hard to listen to. And it’s one that doesn’t get easier in the re-telling for her.
When Tracy first started doing this kind of work, she thought that it would. She felt shame that when she tried to hold back tears, they came anyway. She told herself she’d stop crying the more she shared it.
It’s been nearly 100 times now, and she hasn’t stopped crying.
“One of the things I really want you to know about someone like me is that this type of trauma lives right here,” Tracy said, holding her hand up, palm out, next to her face, right in her peripheral vision.
“Like, it lives right here. It doesn’t go away like you would think it does. It’s not like a memory that fades. It lives right here,” she said.
Her friend drove Tracy home, and Tracy remembers not crying until she heard the swoosh and click of the lock as the apartment door close shut on her way to the car.
“I’ll tell you why I think that survivors and especially women, why we blame ourselves. For women, from the time we’re this big, we’re taught how to keep ourselves safe. We’re conditioned and taught how to keep ourselves safe from you,” she told the room.
“Women are taught how to keep themselves safe from men. So we’re told to go everywhere in pairs. Check your drink. Hold your keys a certain way. Take self-defense. Carry your Mace with you. Know who you’re with. Check the back seat of the car. Don’t take night classes.
“There’s so many things that we’re told to do to keep ourselves safe, and you know what happens when something happens to us? You go through the checklist of all the things you did wrong, and I was going through my checklist. My boyfriend wasn’t there. I drank. I started blaming myself, and I didn’t even do anything wrong.”
On the drive home, it quickly became evident that her best friend had known what was happening to her and hadn’t done anything to stop it. “Brenda, it’s going to be okay. We just got in over our heads,” Tracy recalled her saying. Tracy couldn’t respond through body-racking sobs, but she knew at that moment that woman would no longer be a part of her life.
She figures her friend must have called her mother, who showed up at her house to find her daughter in the fetal position on the couch. She sat on the floor and stroked her hair. All Tracy could do was apologize to her mother and plead with her not to be mad at her for drinking, for putting herself in that position.
Her mother reassured her but also told her she would need to go to the hospital. Since she didn’t remember so much of her attack, she had no idea what all had been inside of her. She knew some foreign objects had been used, but she didn’t know which ones. Did they leave something inside of her? Did she have internal damage? And had they all used condoms? Had they given her an STD? Was she pregnant?
She still remembers her mother’s face in the rearview mirror – Tracy was in the backseat of the van on the way to the hospital, watching silent tears streaming down her mother’s face and feeling shame and heartbreak at the pain she felt she caused her mother.
And she remembered deciding that after everything she’d been through that it was time for her to die.
She tells the assembled athletes that she’d been abused by a grandfather as a toddler and raped by a babysitter’s boyfriend at age 9. That piled on top of losing sports due to her early pregnancy and her grandmother disowning her. Add in the gang rape, and it became too much to bear.
The only people she figured would miss her were her two children, who were then ages 4 and 5. Their father was in and out of prison and not a part of their lives. They would need a parent.
“But then I thought about the fact that some day, my sons were going to be your age,” she said, pointing out at the crowd. “Some day, my sons were going to be young men just like you. And when they were and they found out what happened to me, how could my sons ever respect me?
“Once my sons found out what happened to me, how could my sons ever love me, respect me, not be ashamed of me? How could my sons ever look at me and be like, ‘that’s my mom’ and be proud of me once they found out that those men ran a train on their mother?” She could barely get through the end of the sentence without a choked sob threatening to take over.
So she said she decided she’d go to the hospital as a last, nice gesture to her mother and then return home to die.
Calling the procedure that victims endure “collecting a rape kit” is incredibly euphemistic. After being violated in any way – much less for six hours – the last thing a victim wants is to be naked again, touched again, poked and prodded again. But, as Tracy pointed out, after a rape, “your body is the crime scene.”
Her sexual assault nurse, Jenny, made her feel more comfortable than she thought she would feel, though. And in a moment after Jenny left the room, she asked God why she should stay alive. She felt the answer, she said, rather than hearing it, and she felt her purpose was to take care of her sons and to become a nurse.
So she started asking Jenny about how she became a nurse, and Jenny told her. She suddenly had renewed hope and renewed purpose.
“Jenny saved my life,” she said.
Two months later, Tracy started school. And she became a nurse, which she was for 14 years before starting her new career as a speaker.
After submitting to the invasive forensic examination at the hospital, Tracy went to the police station. They believed her and arrested the four men. The doctor that worked with her nurse even told the police that although he didn’t usually do this, he would testify in Tracy’s case if need be.
She thought this was the beginning of the resolution of her story, but it was far from it.
It became a news item because three of the accused were football players, including Michael Ainsworth, the high-profile incoming freshman at Cal.
And while there was no social media in 1998, and any news stories referred to her as “Jane Doe,” her community found out who she was.
“The first thing that happened to me was my community turned on me. Instantly, they turned on me. Immediately, I was called a whore and a liar,” Tracy said. “Who is this girl, why is she lying and why is she trying to ruin their lives? So not only was I the victim of a crime, now I’m a perpetrator because I’m intentionally trying to ruin someone else’s life.”
She started receiving death threats – against herself and her sons, she said. All four men were facing up to 20 years in prison. Her boyfriend, a teammate to two of them, sided with his teammates because he didn’t want them to go to jail. She’d stopped talking to her friend after that car ride, but the woman showed up angrily at her house anyway and asked Tracy if she was going to prosecute.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to prosecute.’ I believe in an effort to protect her boyfriend and his brother, who was now facing 20 years for my rape, she said to me, ‘If you go to court, I’ll testify against you’,” Tracy said.
She told her in no uncertain terms to get out, and they never spoke to each other again.
But Tracy, at that point, had lost almost everyone in her life except for her children and her parents.
She still wanted to prosecute. But she says the district attorney told her that she didn’t have a good case – called it a ‘he said, she said’ – and told her she’d have to testify four times at four separate trials, that her rape kit photographs would become public, that she probably wasn’t going to win.
So Tracy said if she had no chance, she didn’t want to put herself and her kids through that. So she decided to drop the charges.
That only seemed to embolden those who called her a liar and a whore.
“I have to tell you, this is the exact same dynamic that happens today. Twenty years later, we are still calling victims liars as soon as they come forward. We are still saying if you don’t prosecute a certain way, then that means you lied,” Tracy said. “If it’s a not guilty verdict, then it means they lied. There’s all these things that are going on right now today still in society around this issue.”
She wasn’t a student at Oregon State, but she went to an administrator at the school anyway to let them know what happened. It was all she had left to do. Sometimes, she told the assembled athletes, the only recourse for a victim is to try and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. No action was taken, but at least she’d tried to do something.
But one more upsetting news item would come out, and that was a quote from then-Oregon State head football coach Mike Riley.
The rape and subsequent arrests had happened just before the season, and Riley decided to suspend Ainsworth and Dandridge for just one game each. The quote, though was what got to her: “These are really good guys who just made a bad choice.” And he praised the players for way they handled their suspension.
“I read this in the paper and I was angry. I was angry. I was pissed. I was like, ‘A bad choice? Really good guys just made a bad choice? That’s what we call gang rape now, a bad choice? Because I think a speeding ticket is a bad choice. I think not drinking enough water and being a cross-country runner is a bad choice. Not gang rape.’
I didn’t understand how this man, this coach – he’s supposed to be a man of character and building men of character – could say that about me, literally minimize my life to like nothing,” Tracy said.
“I definitely didn’t understand a one-game suspension. And of course they were handling it well. They were facing 20 years in prison. Who doesn’t want a one-game suspension?”
But she was Jane Doe. She couldn’t exactly speak out against Riley. So she watched silently and stewed angrily as she watched those players play, one for four more seasons, at Oregon State, as she watched people cheer for them on Saturdays, oblivious to the truth.
Her mother told her that time heals all wounds. She tried to let it heal hers. She got her bachelor of science and nursing degree then an MBA. She eventually became the coordinator of an acute mobile dialysis team and doing quite well.
But she was living a double life. Her public face was a successful mother and nurse who bought her sons anything nice that they wanted and had a nice house and a nice car. Privately, she had post-traumatic stress disorder. If she was in a relationship, it was an abusive one. She had a borderline eating disorder. And she still woke up every day wanting to die.
“How do you fix it when you feel like you’re dying from the inside out? How do you fix that? There was no amount of hot showers I could take to get those men off of me because they had been inside my body,” she said.
“I felt like they had ruined me, like who could ever want to be with me or love me or respect me after they knew what those men did to me?”
And over the years, she started to resent the reason she couldn’t just die - her two children.
Her parenting suffered as a result. She never hit her children, she said, but she yelled a lot and lost her patience easily. She attended all of their games and important events, but she wasn’t fully present. She bought them things, but they wanted more from her. And she wasn’t the mom she said her children deserved.
“People ask me today, ‘Do you hate the men that raped you?’ I can say, ‘Yeah.’ I try not to, but I do hate them.
“But I don’t hate them for what they did to me in that apartment. I hate those men for the years that they stole from me and my sons. Those men stole the opportunity for me to be the mother that I should have been to my sons, and I will never get those years back, and I hate them for that. I hate them from taking those years from me and my boys,” Tracy says.
“Because today my sons are grown, and all I can do is stand in front of them toe to toe, look up to them and say, ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me.’ But I can’t change any of it. I’ve watched my sons struggle and go through things that I know are because of the way that they were raised, because I wasn’t able to be there for them the way that they needed.”
When she wanted to die, one of the biggest things that convinced her to make that choice was that her children would never be able to look at her and respect her and be proud of her.
One of the first steps to where she is today was doing the thing she feared doing the most – telling her children about the assault.
But when her older son Darius turned 17, he was in trouble. He dropped out of school and had run away, and was getting into drugs and alcohol. She knew she was going to lose him one way or the other, whether he died or went to prison. She had to try something.
On their way back from truancy court, she pulled her car in front of their house and did the thing she’d been dreading for over a decade.
“I thought that would be the end of our relationship because we didn’t have a good relationship. We fought a lot. I didn’t want to tell him. But I did tell him,” Tracy said. “I was telling him, ‘Please don’t be mad at me. Please don’t be ashamed of me.’
“My son looked at me when I was done telling him and he was like, ‘Mom, why would I be ashamed of you? You did nothing wrong.’ That kind of surprised me because I wasn’t expecting that response from him, but then the next thing he said really broke my heart because he said, ‘So you mean all these years, it wasn’t my fault?’”
In the end, it made him look at her with more respect. She had gone through all she did and then went to nursing school and raised two children on her own?
“So his entire view of me completely changed. Our relationship changed. He went back to school. He got on the varsity basketball team that year. He went on to college. He played basketball in college. He’s got a girlfriend and a baby now, and he works, and he’s living a good life, and we have a good relationship today,” Tracy said. “He’s like my biggest fan. So is his brother. So it turned out good for us.”
When Tracy turned 40 in 2014, she looked in the mirror in a moment of self-reflection, asking herself if this was going to be her life - this life of pretending everything was okay, hiding part of who she was to most of the outside world.
She decided she wanted to try to heal. She went to counseling, but her counselor got sick and had to quit. She went to Oregon State to try to get answers, to try to get closure, but they didn’t want to talk to her.
But there was a familiar face back in Corvallis, the man whose quote had made her blood boil back in 1998: Riley.
She started doing research on him before she reached out. What kind of guy was he? All she could find online were articles that raved about how he was one of the best men in football. She finally found one story about how he’d suspended a player convicted of domestic violence for just one game and used it as validation of her own feelings towards him.
She wrote an email to the author of the story, and she told him briefly of her own history with Riley, how he wasn’t really a good guy after all. That author was John Canzano, a sportswriter at The Oregonian, and he got back to her quickly and asked to meet.
She didn’t see why anyone would possibly care about her story, but Canzano thought it could help someone. And so she let him tell it.
The photos of her used for the story – which she wanted used, along with her name – are striking; she looks older then than she does now. The sheer emotional weight of those years where she trying to heal is so evident. The only glimpse of the Tracy you see today is the steely, determined glint in her eyes. But they’re haunted, too.
But she didn’t agree to let Canzano write the story in order to help others, she said. She just couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t go on living the way she was living. She had to try something else.
“I had lived 16 years living a double life, waking up every day wanting to die. That was a moment of desperation because I really just thought if I put my name and my face on this, maybe it’ll run and the next day will be the first day that I don’t want to die,” Tracy said. “That was it. It was a selfish reason. It was only for me. I wasn’t trying to help anybody but myself.”
Her hope was that in that moment, those two dueling sides of herself would merge peacefully into the one person that she was: Brenda Tracy, registered nurse, single mother, rape survivor.
And somehow, that’s exactly what happened.
“I literally walked out of my prison of shame and silence in that moment that story went up for the world to see,” Tracy said. “That was something that I wasn’t expecting, but that was a huge transformational moment for me.”
She got support instead of scorn from her community this time, and she was one of the first rape victims to ever get a public apology from a university president. Riley started to reach out to her around that time, first in the comments section of that story. But she wasn’t quite ready to talk to him.
Canzano wasn’t done, though. He wanted to investigate how this could have happened.
Tracy recounted the horrifying moment she realized that the case she’d been told by the DA was so thin wasn’t really thin at all.
“The DA told me I had a ‘he said, she said’ case. The DA said it would be very hard to prove. But the DA had taped confessions for all four men,” her voice almost shakes from anger, still. “All four men had confessed what they did to me, because they were not very bright.
“The police didn’t test my rape kit. They threw it in the trash. They threw all of my evidence in the trash, three years before the six-year statute of limitations was up to prosecute those men. And the university president told everybody ‘Don’t talk about Brenda,’ and nobody did.”
The reason no one should talk about her, according to Tracy, was that the athletic department was in financial trouble and needed, among things, to renovate the football stadium. A rape scandal would certainly not help that, and back then, there were regular meetings between the DA, the police and the university president “to talk about how to take care of football,” Tracy said.
While Oregon State did its own investigation of what happened to Tracy and did issue her a formal apology, the university has always denied that the need for money for a new stadium led the school to tell the DA to discourage her from prosecuting.
“I’m an Oregonian. I’m a proud Oregonian. And when I see that football stadium, I’m acutely aware that that stadium was built off of my back and my pain and my children’s pain. I don’t say that to you figuratively, right? I say it to you literally. That stadium was built off of my back and my pain,” Tracy said.
“People literally cared more about a football game than they did my life. My sons almost ended up without a mother and a father, and I didn’t really know what to do with that. What does that say about me as a human, my value and my worth? If all of those people knew what happened to me and nobody did anything?”
She was angry, understandably. She’d had no idea all four men had basically confessed.
She went to a lawyer to see if she could sue. But district attorneys have immunity, and they get to pick and choose which cases they prosecute. There were no laws on the books about rape kits, so the police did nothing wrong in ignoring hers. And she wasn’t a student at Oregon State, so federal protections in place for students didn’t apply to her either.
But, the lawyer told her, “You could change the law.” It was the only recourse she had.
So that’s what she’s done ever since: change the law. Or create new ones, better ones. And not just about sexual assault and domestic violence.
“I’m a citizen lobbyist. In three sessions in my state of Oregon, I helped pass seven laws – to extend the statute of limitations, to create a rape kit law, worked on some racial profiling bills with our police – anything that I can make sure that what happens to me doesn’t happen again, anything that I can do to further the needle on social justice, I do that in my state,” Tracy said.
The life she lives now – traveling around the country and speaking to athletes, among others, and telling her story – started in the summer of 2016.
And it started in one of the most unlikely places.
Coach Riley’s office.
Ever since her story came out in 2014, Riley had been reaching out and trying to meet with her, both via Canzano and even in the comments section of his story. He was back at Oregon State then as head coach. She wasn’t quite ready yet, though. But then he was named head coach at Nebraska just a month after her story ran. She thought she’d missed her window.
But even there, he continued to reach out to her. And finally, when he asked her to come to Lincoln, she agreed, and she found herself in his office nearly 18 years after her rape, face to face with the man who had minimized participation in her rape to a “bad choice.”
“I sat down with him in this office for about an hour and a half and I told him how much I hated him. I didn’t hold anything back. I told that man everything I wanted him to know and everything I had felt about him. And Coach Riley did this amazing thing for me: he held himself accountable to me,” Tracy said.
“That meant a lot to me, because I needed that. He apologized to me and he held himself accountable to me and my pain and his part in my story. He didn’t make excuses. He didn’t rationalize it. None of that. He didn’t justify it. Nothing.
“There’s two ways to apologize – I’m sorry, period, or I’m sorry, but here’s why you shouldn’t be upset with me. Those are two very different apologies. Coach Riley did the first one for me, and I needed that. It was important for me.”
He asked her to meet with his team as well, to tell them her story and to share his part in her story, too. And that’s exactly what she did.
As she stood in front of 120 Nebraska football players, Riley stood there too, off to the side but in front of his team where everyone could see him.
And as he stood up beside her, she told her story. She also told all 120 of his players that at one point, she hated Riley more than she hated her rapists.
“They all looked at me, they looked at him, they looked back at me and they weren’t quite sure what to do with that statement, but I will tell you what I told them: ’I can rationalize a rapist. It’s not that hard. Bad people do bad ****. What I can’t rationalize is good people not doing the right thing. I can’t rationalize coaches that are supposed to be good men of character building other good men of character saying these are good guys who just made a bad choice, one-game suspensions. I can’t rationalize the DAs and the police who are supposed to protect and serve us not doing it.
I can’t rationalize good people not doing the right thing.’”
And that’s why she hated Riley as much as she did for so long. Everything she’d read about him for so long said he was a good person. But that didn’t jibe with what she knew, with her experience. He didn’t rape her. But he helped excuse people who did.
“Let’s set sexual assault and domestic violence aside. In any moment of injustice, if you do nothing and you say nothing, do you get to say you’re a good person? Because I say no, you don’t,” Tracy said. “Saying nothing is saying something. Doing nothing is doing something. You are taking a stand. You don’t get a pass anymore. If you say nothing and you do nothing in moments of injustice, you do not get to call yourself a good person. You’re part of the problem.”
Her moment of forgiveness and grace with Riley, and his moment of atonement with her, went viral. So, too, did her message to his team.
And other schools started calling. That’s how she started the Set the Expectation campaign and her speaking career.
She mostly speaks to men and to athletes. And Tracy knows that she will encounter some defensiveness from them for that reason.
“If you hear nothing else that I say today,” she said, “I want you to listen to what I’m going to say right now. Please pay attention right now.
“I am not here because I think you’re the problem. I am here because I know that you are the solution. Every single one of you in this room right now, you are the solution to this issue.
“If women could stop sexual violence, we would have already done it. Do you hear me? The women before me would have made sure that I was not hurt. I would not exist as a rape survivor if women could handle it by ourselves. We alone cannot stop sexual violence. That’s like asking a child to end child abuse. It can’t happen.”
She went on to cite that 98% of all sexual violence is carried out by men, but that those criminals are only 10% of the population. That leaves, she said, the other 90%.
And women alone can’t stop the crimes, she said. Will the 10% of men who perpetrate these crimes stop it? Obviously not. So who does that leave? The 90%.
The athletes she talks to are in that 90%.
“The problem is that within the 90%, we have men that are complicit in their inaction. They’re complicit in their silence,” Tracy said. “They know stuff. They see stuff. And they’re not getting involved.”
Simply not perpetrating these crimes is no longer laudatory in and of itself. Everyone needs to work together to fight against rape culture, to step in when they see someone in a bad situation and to make sure people are informed about consent and what it really means.
She goes to athletes, she said, because she is aware of the very thing that makes them so defensive: if the chess club team captain was arrested for rape, it might make the news but it wouldn’t be a big story. If a basketball player or a football player were arrested for rape? Big story.
That’s part of what comes with having the most power and influence on campus, she said, but athletes can use that power and influence to help change the conversation, to change the expectation.
“We learn about perpetrators and victims through the lens of sports stories, and the narrative is all wrong. The media would have you think that if I was passed out right now, every single one of you would line up to rape me,” Tracy said, a statement that hits home more powerfully coming from her than perhaps almost any other person who could utter it.
“I know that’s not true. What I do is I try to work smarter and not harder. I go to the 90%. I go to the male athletes on every campus and I ask you to get involved. I ask you to have conversations with each other. I ask you, the 90%, to push back on the 10%. I ask coaches to get involved. I ask them to set the expectation about behavior for you. I ask you to be the catalyst to change the culture on your campus because I know that you are the solution to this issue.”
Her Set the Expectation campaign began in April 2017, as a way to organize the cause in a way that was a call to action for colleges. Penn State men’s basketball was the first team to sign it. Stanford football was the first football team, and their head coach David Shaw has been one of Tracy’s biggest supporters.
Signing the pledge, which looks like this, is a team making a commitment to do two things: attach eligibility to behavior and have important conversations about consent, trying to change the culture.
The first one is certainly the most controversial, but Tracy says that attaching eligibility to behavior isn’t all that different than attaching it to grades.
When an athlete knows he or she has to maintain a certain GPA to stay eligible, they do all they can to make that happen, and people around them in their support system do too. So, Tracy wonders, what would happen if the same were true of domestic violence and sexual violence?
“We can’t ever think that we’re going to end sexual violence and domestic violence in this country if we continue to put violent offenders on pedestals to be worshiped by fans and to influence younger generations,” Tracy said.
“What if that high school boy knew he’s not coming to NC State if he hurt another person? What happens if his mindset, and more than that, what happens to all the people around that young man, because now they’re invested in making sure that they have a conversation with that young man about consent, about healthy relationships, who you’re hanging out with, where are you going, what are you doing? They’re going to make sure that he understands the behavior that could cause him to lose his eligibility.”
The conversation part is an extension of that. She wants athletes to commit to helping to end rape culture, speaking out when they hear something problematic being said or when they see someone in a bad situation. She wants them to understand consent and be able to educate others about what it means, too.
“Your 40 (yard dash) time doesn’t tell me anything about you as a man ... It just tells me if you’re a good athlete. If we’re not as a society having conversations with you about these important things, we’re not setting you up to live your best life,” Tracy said.
“When I hear about a man in the NFL or MLB or the NBA that’s gotten in trouble, the first thing I wonder is who failed him? At what point did we decide that he was a commodity and just start passing him through the pipeline from high school to college to pros and didn’t really care about what he was doing, didn’t set expectations, didn’t set boundaries, didn’t check him when we needed it? Who failed him and didn’t have these conversations? So the pledge also has conversation with you. I also believe that’s a way to change the culture.”
She shows them the purple and teal ribbons she has distributed, and she gives them bracelets as well at the end that read “Set the Expectation” with the same color scheme. Purple is for domestic violence and teal is for sexual assault.
Stanford had the first “Set the Expectation” game, and she proudly shows the athletes a picture of her and her sons at midfield.
She was an honorary captain at a Michigan football game, and she shows them a picture of her and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh. Before the game, she walked to midfield for the coin toss with Michigan’s players – something they’d asked her to do.
And in that moment, she heard the cheers of 100,000-plus Michigan fans on a college football Saturday rain down but instead of it being in a stadium built on her pain or for players who caused it, the cheers were for her.
It’s not like the cheers make it all worth it, though. She re-lives her trauma every time she tells her story. And as hard as she fights, as much as she advocates, she doesn’t always get the kinds of changes that she seeks. She’s still coming to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, and doesn’t really speak about that.
Her Twitter mentions can be a toxic place, especially when she is speaking out about specific people.
It’s easy to support Tracy as a survivor and feel empathy and compassion for her. It’s easy to say that in theory, athletes who commit sexual assault or acts of domestic violence shouldn’t play sports.
It’s not as easy to put the things she advocates into practice, especially when she’s advocating someone on your favorite sports team be suspended or kicked off the team.
She took on this responsibility because she knew she wanted to help other people. And she has helped a lot of people. Including herself. But it hasn’t been easy. And it won’t be easy. But there are moments that make her feel like she’s making a difference.
By the time Tracy’s presentation at State was finished, the national championship game between Virginia and Texas Tech was a little over an hour away. But no one in the auditorium seemed to be in a hurry to leave.
After she finished her presentation, she asked for questions or comments from the assembled NC State athletes. She took a few, but the last one she took wasn’t a question.
He just wanted to thank her.
“You’re changing the world with what you’re doing,” he said, “Don’t stop.”