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“That’s My Justice”

For 16 years, Brenda Tracy bore the burden of a life-altering trauma in silence. For the past 16 months, she has been the nation’s leading advocate in the fight against college football’s rape culture. Meet the woman who is working to end sexual violence—and to heal herself with every word.

Brenda Tracy Photo by Taylor Hatmaker

Brenda Tracy arrives one spring morning in Houston, the air hot and viscous, the city’s sprawl never-ending. She sits in the back of a black sedan, riding from the airport to her hotel. She’ll be here less than 24 hours, much of it spent at the University of Houston’s football facility, before it’s back home to Oregon and then on to the next college campus. Land, sleep, speak, leave, over and over again. This is her routine.

Right now her driver says little, listening instead to sports talk radio. It’s a few days after the 2017 NFL draft, and the hosts are talking about Joe Mixon, the Oklahoma running back whom the Cincinnati Bengals selected in the second round despite the emergence of surveillance footage that showed Mixon punching a female student in 2014. They use phrases like “character issues” and “off-field problems” and “second chances,” Tracy later remembers, the paint-by-numbers morality that governs so many public discussions about sports and violence.

There in the car, Tracy is a little annoyed. Her work follows her everywhere. At one point, her driver asks, “What brings you to Houston?”

When she gets this kind of question, Tracy never deflects. “I’m speaking to the Cougars football team about rape,” she says.

The driver weighs this for a moment. “What does that have to do with football?” he asks.

Tracy doesn’t pause. “I was gang-raped by a group of football players,” she says.

The driver nods and looks straight ahead. Talk radio fills the silence. Tracy is used to this kind of reaction.

“I want people to feel uncomfortable,” Tracy says later, while sitting in her hotel lobby, as she recounts the car ride. “That’s the whole point.”

Over the past 16 months, Tracy has become the nation’s leading advocate in the fight against sexual and relationship violence in college football. She travels the country, speaking to coaches and student-athletes across sports and levels about her own experiences and about the ways that they can work to end rape culture. She helps lawmakers in her home state of Oregon to draft legislation that expands rights for survivors. She has developed a campaign, named Set the Expectation, that calls on coaches and players to sign a pledge stating that they will work to fight the culture that surrounds sexual violence. She brainstorms proposed changes in university policies as a member of the NCAA’s Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence.

In every room, everywhere she goes, she serves the same essential function. “My role,” Tracy says, “is to make sure that no one ever forgets about the survivors. My role is to show them that we are real people with real strength and real pain.”

Brenda Tracy and the University of Oregon football team
Brenda Tracy, center, with the University of Oregon football team after a presentation in February
Courtesy of Brenda Tracy

Now, more than ever before, women and men who have endured sexual violence and harassment are finding the strength and the platforms to tell their stories. The past month’s news cycle has been filled with survivors’ accounts. Eighty-two women who say they were assaulted, raped, or harassed by famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. More than 300 women who say they were harassed or assaulted by writer and director James Toback. Several women who say they were assaulted or harassed by journalist Mark Halperin. A number of men who’ve accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexual misconduct. Even more: Dustin Hoffman, recently resigned Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, and former New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier have faced accusations of harassment. On social media, untold numbers have told their own stories, many for the first time, using the hashtag #MeToo.

College football is among the many institutions facing its own reckoning with sexual violence. Independent investigative journalist Jessica Luther has counted at least 50 programs across all divisions that have dealt with allegations of sexual assault, from Florida State to Yale, Notre Dame to Santa Barbara City College. That number, though, fails to account for the vast majority of sexual assaults that go unreported, as well as those that are reported but never become public. One in five college women say they have faced sexual assault, according to a 2016 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 1995 study, relying on data collected from 1991 to 1993, showed that while male athletes comprise only 3.3 percent of their gender’s student population, they were involved in 19 percent of reported sexual assault cases. A 2015 study from economists at Texas A&M, Montana State University, and the University of Wollongong in Australia showed a stark correlation between college football game days and reports of rape among 17-to-24-year-old women. Those reports increased by 41 percent on home game days and 15 percent on away game days, with an 82 percent increase on the days of rivalry games.

In the last five years, stories of sexual violence have dominated college football. Among the most high-profile cases: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston stood accused of rape during the 2013 season, when he went on to win the Heisman Trophy and national championship; Vanderbilt players faced accusations of gang rape, resulting to date in the conviction and imprisonment of three former players; and then, of course, there’s Baylor. Many women have come forward with stories of rape at the Baptist university, and a lawsuit alleges 52 acts of rape by 31 players in a four-year period, many allegedly covered up by university officials and the staff of former coach Art Briles. Another lawsuit claims that Baylor football players used gang rape as a bonding ritual. While the violence is nothing new, advocates like Tracy and works of journalism like the documentary The Hunting Ground have brought the issue more attention than ever before.

“Why is this still happening?” University of Oregon football coach Willie Taggart said to me after Tracy spoke to his team in February. “We have to ask ourselves that. And part of the answer is that these young men have grown up in a culture that condones it. They need to be educated. And it’s our responsibility as coaches to educate them.”

Tracy puts the onus on coaches, administrators, and players. “My message to anyone involved in football is, ‘This is happening on your watch,’” Tracy says. “‘You’re part of the problem, but you can also be part of the solution.’” She has appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines and been quoted in national publications, lending her perspective as new cases surface: calling on Baylor to cancel the remainder of its 2016 season after fans wore T-shirts in support of the recently fired Briles, speaking up against Mixon and then–Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops (whom Tracy considers an ally), so loudly that Mixon mentioned Tracy by name in a press conference apologizing for his behavior. Since she began speaking to teams in June of last year, she has been to more than 50 schools, from Stanford to Georgia, Washington to Oklahoma. In addition to big-time football programs, she speaks to male and female athletes across all sports and all divisions, even, occasionally, high schools. At almost any university she visits, she talks to the football team on its own. She estimates that she meets with additional teams about 75 percent of the time.

“We’ve brought in a number of speakers to talk about sexual assault with our team,” Houston coach Major Applewhite told me. “But even after having several other people come and talk, I kept hearing from other friends who are coaches, and they all said, ‘You have to bring in Brenda. You have to. She’s real, and raw, and she has power and teeth.’”

Many student-athletes have never heard a first-hand account of rape and its effects until listening to Tracy speak. “She is constantly opening up her own wounds for the benefit of other people,” Stanford coach David Shaw told me. “She changes the lives of guys who hear her speak. I really believe that. For so many of them, they knew this issue was out there — sexual assault — but it had no face for them. It had no name. Now it has a face and a name. And it has compassion. It has a woman who’s showing that she cares about these young men, that she cares about them not going down this road.”

As she works to effect change on campuses and in locker rooms, Tracy continues along her own path toward restoration. “Telling my story,” she says, “is healing for me.” When Tracy speaks, she finds her fears weakening with every word.

Brenda Tracy and the University of Houston football team
Tracy, center, with the University of Houston football team in May
Courtesy of Brenda Tracy

Applewhite walks to the front of a football meeting room at the University of Houston, looks out at a room of about 100 men, and begins to talk about rape. His words are halting, his face earnest. “This is something that, quite honestly, we haven’t been raised the right way all the time,” he says. “We haven’t been raised right. We’ve gotta change. Ourselves and our culture. How do we do this? We educate ourselves, day by day, myself included.”

The room is quiet, all heads up and eyes trained on Applewhite. He’s a first-year head coach, promoted from offensive coordinator after Tom Herman’s departure, and he says he’s been obsessing over finding the right speakers to come before his team. “I wanted you to hear from someone who is a survivor. I wanted you to hear from someone who’s going to show you their heart. I want it to be real.”

He introduces Tracy. The players clap as she walks to the front of the room. She takes the mic from Applewhite. “Hi, guys,” she says. “My name is Brenda Tracy.” She starts with the basics. Just a few words to get her acclimated to the sound of her own voice, to settle her heart rate as she paces around the room. She checks in with her body, makes sure that she’s breathing deeply, inhabiting herself fully, present right there in the room.

She does not look at the players, not really. She speaks with them before and after her talks, but while she’s addressing the entire team, the individuals remain faceless. Her best way of connecting to them, she believes, is to connect to herself. So she paces back and forth, in tune with her own emotions, and continues.

“I am from Portland, Oregon. I am a single mom. I am a registered nurse. And today I am going to tell you the story of my rape.”

She arrived at an apartment complex in Corvallis, Oregon, soon after midnight on June 24, 1998. Tracy was 24 years old, the mother of two boys, dating a former Oregon State football player. She showed up at the apartment with her friend, Karmen McFadden, who was dating a Beavers football player, Greg Ainsworth. There she found Ainsworth and his brother Michael, an 18-year-old football recruit; their friend Nakia Ware, a community college football player; and Oregon State football players Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge, both of whom Tracy knew through her then-boyfriend, who was not present that night.

Tracy remembers someone offering her a drink. She remembers saying no. Alcoholism ran in her family, so she rarely drank. The others insisted that she relax, and so she did. “Fine,” she remembers saying. Someone poured her a glass of orange juice mixed with gin. She took one sip and recoiled. Too much gin, not enough juice. She sent it back and asked them to drown out the taste of the booze. Minutes passed, music playing and everyone laughing, until, Tracy remembers, the room began to spin. She remembers looking across the room and seeing McFadden and Greg Ainsworth rise together and walk into a back bedroom. She lost consciousness.

The next thing she remembers is waking up on the floor, on her back, completely naked, unable to move her arms or legs. She remembers looking to her right and seeing a man try to put his penis in her mouth, then looking to her left and seeing another man try to force his penis into her mouth. She remembers looking down her torso. “A third man,” she says, “was raping me.” She remembers a fourth, watching, stroking himself.

She remembers them laughing and high-fiving, and one shouting to another, “Get it, dog.” She remembers feeling paralyzed and confused. “It was like I was trying to make myself wake up and I couldn’t,” she says. She thinks she asked them to stop. Or perhaps she asked them what they were doing. But she does not know if the words ever formed, does not know if she was able to actually speak. She passed out again.

The next time she remembers waking up, she says she was in a man’s arms. She remembers her mouth was open, and that someone was pouring liquor down her throat. She says she choked. She says she could not fight, could not even move. She passed out again.

She remembers waking up, feeling like she was about to vomit. She remembers one man taking her to the bathroom and laying her over the counter. She remembers him pushing her head into the sink and the faucet cutting her forehead, and she remembers that she began to vomit. She later told police that he attempted to penetrate her from behind.

She remembers that later, in the living room, the men began to complain that her vagina was dry and swollen. She remembers them gathering ice cubes, then placing them on her vagina, hopeful the cold would reduce the swelling, hopeful the moisture would provide lubrication. It didn’t work, she says. So finally, she remembers, they stopped.

“That,” she says, “is most of what I feel like I can really remember. There’s other stuff, but it’s hazy.”

Tracy soon talked with police, who arrested all four men. When questioned, not every aspect of their interviews with police matched Tracy’s, but all of them told police that they had engaged in sexual acts with her. That’s what it says in the Corvallis Police Department’s file for Case Number 98–06590, labeled “RAPE I/SODOMY I,” which includes statements from Tracy, each of the four men, Greg Ainsworth, and McFadden.

Carlyle told police that his penis touched Tracy’s mouth and that he touched her breasts and clitoris with his fingers. Ware told police that his penis also touched Tracy’s mouth and that he put on a condom and tried to enter her vagina but did not penetrate her. Dandridge told police that he put his penis in Tracy’s mouth and that he put his fingers in her vagina. Michael Ainsworth told police that he kissed Tracy, then took off her clothes and touched her vagina with his fingers, then penetrated her vagina and ejaculated, twice, both times in condoms.

Greg Ainsworth and McFadden, Tracy’s friend, each told police that they saw brief moments of the encounter when they left the bedroom where they spent most of the night. Greg Ainsworth told police that he thought Tracy consented. The report stated that McFadden “did not think Brenda was not consenting” and that “everyone is at fault for what happened.” The police report includes no comments from Ware about whether he believed the encounter to be consensual. Carlyle is first paraphrased as telling police that Tracy “wanted to do this.” Later, though, he is paraphrased as saying that she told him “No” before and after “contact with her mouth and his penis,” and that he heard her tell the other men “No” as well. Dandridge said that while he did not remember Tracy telling anyone “No,” he did remember her asking all of them to leave her alone and let her sleep. He told police that he believed the situation was risky. “I know if she was not saying no, but you repeatedly ask her to do something and she doesn’t want to, you have to be cool,” he told authorities. The police report states that he “did not think it was right,” and that he touched her because he was “messed up.” When asked if he touched her under pressure from the other men, Dandridge said, “Kind of,” and is paraphrased as stating that he was not “that type of person.”

Michael Ainsworth said in his statement that he believed Tracy was giving him his consent while he was removing her clothes. The report stated that he “did not think it was right” that all four of them had engaged in sexual acts with her, but that “they were saying she was like that.” When asked if the others had violated Tracy, Ainsworth said, “Yea, but I know I didn’t.” He said he remembered her asking to be left alone when everyone was touching her. Police pointed out to Ainsworth that he’d continued touching Tracy even after she had asked to be left alone.

“I guess,” he said.

Michael Ainsworth and Ware were booked on charges of rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, and sex abuse. Carlyle and Dandridge were booked on charges of sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, and sex abuse.

(Ware and Carlyle did not respond to messages from The Ringer requesting comment. Michael Ainsworth and Dandridge could not be reached.)

Tracy remembers waking up the next morning. She pushed herself up off the floor. She had vomit and gum in her hair, crumbs of potato chips all over her legs and torso, which left indentations in her skin. She peeled a used condom off her stomach. Every discovery reminded her of what she’d endured. “I felt,” she says, “like an actual piece of trash.”

The moment she left the apartment, Tracy remembers starting to sob. “Why did I drink?” she remembers asking McFadden, who drove her home. “Why the fuck did I drink?” Surely, she thought, the alcohol had been the problem. Surely, she thought, it had been entirely her fault. What would her boyfriend think? What would her friends think? She told herself they would think she was a slut.

Deanna Walters and her daughter, Brenda Tracy
Courtesy of Brenda Tracy

She and McFadden drove from Corvallis back to Salem, where Tracy lived with her mother, Deanna Walters. Tracy curled up on the couch, and when her mom came home Tracy told her what happened. She told her she believed it was her fault. She cried and apologized and pleaded. “I’m sorry,” she remembers saying. “I’m so sorry I drank.”

She remembers her mother saying it was OK. She wasn’t mad. They went together to a women’s crisis center in Salem. Tracy walked inside, hunched over, back aching. The woman she spoke with encouraged her to go to the hospital; Tracy had also called Corvallis police anonymously, and during that call as well a detective advised her to go to the hospital.

As they rode to the hospital, Tracy looked to her mother, who was in the driver’s seat. “I remember watching her crying,” Tracy says, “and just thinking to myself, ‘I did that to her.’ Not only that, but I had done it before.”

Tracy says she was raped when she was 9 years old by a babysitter’s boyfriend. She told her mother around four years later. Her mother contacted the police, Tracy says, but by then the statute of limitations — three years at that time — had passed. “I remembered her crying back then,” Tracy says, “and it felt the same.”

Then Tracy thought about the trajectory of the rest of her life. She’d gotten pregnant in high school, had given up a chance at a college volleyball scholarship to have her first son. She’d been in another years-long relationship she describes as abusive. She spent time on welfare, a single mother supporting two children (she had a second son at age 20) and barely making ends meet. She says, “I thought, what was the point of living if I was only on this earth to be beaten and abused and raped, along with the pain I was inflicting on others?”

She had her boys. They were 5 and 4. They needed a mother. But then she thought about how the boys would grow up to become men. “And when they’re men,” she remembers thinking, “then they’re going to know about me. And they’re going to be ashamed. And then, how could they ever love me or hold their heads up and say, ‘That’s my mom?’ They would be better off without me.”

She decided to kill herself. That, she thought, would make everything better. She had spent hours shaking and crying, nauseated, but now she felt something new: relief. “I felt so peaceful all of a sudden,” she says. “It was like this really warm, melting feeling from the top of my head down to my toes. Like, ‘Yes. This is the answer. This is it.’” She would wait, at least a few more hours. She would go to the hospital and go through the rape kit exam. That would be her final gift to her mother. Then she would leave to die.

She wasn’t sure how. “I just knew that I wanted to do it in a way that my kids wouldn’t find my body, because I didn’t want to traumatize them,” she says. “That’s weird, right? Like, I’m gonna kill myself, but I don’t want my kids to be traumatized by finding my body. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how my mind was working.”

She arrived at Salem Hospital and met an energetic nurse named Jenenne Stanley. “I thought that she would look at me and see me the way that I felt,” says Tracy. “I thought she would be nice to me but that she would think, ‘Uhhh, this is disgusting.’ I thought she would blame me. And when I told her my story, I thought she would say, ‘Oh, well, why did you drink?’ Because that was the biggest thing for me. This was my fault because I drank.”

Stanley, though, upended Tracy’s expectations. “She looked at me with compassion and empathy,” Tracy says. “And the way she looked at me caused me to ask God, ‘Why am I here? Why should I not kill myself?’ And I felt like God said to me, ‘I want you to be a nurse, and I want you to take care of your kids.’ And so all of a sudden I felt like I had a purpose in life. I’d never thought about being a nurse before, but right then, I knew that was what I was going to do.”

Throughout her exam, Tracy peppered Stanley with questions about nursing. Says Tracy: “Jenny would pluck 10 pubic hairs, and I would say, ‘Jenny, how did you become a nurse?’ And then she would say, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to swab your rectum now,’ and I would say, ‘What about financial aid?’ And she would say, ‘We need to take photos of your entire body,’ and I would say, ‘Where are the good nursing schools?’ So we just ping-ponged back and forth, and that was how I got through the exam.”

Tracy wondered if she’d been drugged in the apartment. Her toxicology report came back negative. Stanley, who had encouraged Tracy to talk to law enforcement, told police this appeared to be a case of nonconsensual sex. She also told them that the on-call doctor said that although he typically preferred not to testify in court, he would be glad to testify in Tracy’s case.

Tracy went to a local police station in Salem, where she met with the Corvallis police and gave a statement. Police arrested all four men the next day.

Soon, the arrests became news. Even though two of the men were Oregon State football players — Dandridge, a tailback, and Carlyle, then a backup linebacker — Tracy hadn’t expected this. Their faces were on TV, their names in the newspaper and on the radio. Tracy continued talking with police and the district attorney. Within about three weeks, though, the strain of the investigation became exhausting. The case would take years, she remembers the district attorney explaining. She would have to testify in four separate trials, sitting on the witness stand and reliving one of the worst moments of her life. Her friendship with McFadden had dissolved after that night. At the time, Tracy did not know the contents of the police report — which showed the degree to which the men seemed to implicate themselves in their interviews with police — and she continued to place some blame on herself. One day, she says, a man, whom she assumed to be a die-hard Beavers fan, called her home and threatened to kill her and her children if she didn’t drop the case.

Tracy says her conversations with the district attorney made her believe she had little chance of a conviction, so she decided to not continue with the case. No criminal charges were filed. Still, though, she wanted the men to face repercussions, so she drove to Oregon State and met with a sexual assault support counselor and told her story, hoping something would come of it.

In August, she saw reports saying the two Oregon State football players, Carlyle and Dandridge, had been suspended for one game apiece. Later she saw a quote, from then–Oregon State coach Mike Riley in a September article in the Eugene Register-Guard, that made her blood run cold. “These are very good guys,” Riley said, “who made bad choices.”

Brenda Tracy speaks outside the Oregon State Capitol in February at a rally for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
Photo by Jordan Ritter Conn

She gave herself a mantra. “Time heals all wounds.” Eventually, she thought, the pain would recede. She began her path to a nursing career by enrolling at Portland Community College in 1998. Her life revolved around her sons and her studies.

Years passed. She earned a bachelor’s, then an MBA. She graduated from welfare to a six-figure job. She bought a home. She raised her sons. Time, though, did not heal her wounds. Through her 20s and then her 30s, she spent portions of nearly every day wanting to die.

Some days she wished for death in some distant way, and others she wished for it ravenously. She would sometimes entertain notions of how to die by her own hand, but often she wished for a natural death. “I prayed for cancer,” she says. “Like, ‘God, please let me get some sort of illness that will kill me.’ And I’ll die a hero. People will say, ‘Oh, Brenda, she fought so hard.’ That’s what I wanted.”

Years passed. No disease arrived.

In 2014, she went to counseling. That decision was sparked by a crisis that stemmed from unlocking previously repressed memories of early childhood sexual abuse. Tracy won’t discuss the details of that abuse on the record, but she says she found herself confronted by its memory in a way that left her desperate and desiring therapy.

Therapy helped, at least a little. She worked to process the abuse she says she suffered as a small child, and the rapes she says she endured at 9 and 24. She found the ability to stand back and be staggered by her life’s traumas. (A number of studies show that survivors of childhood sexual abuse are much more likely to be raped as adults. “It’s like predators can smell it on us,” says Tracy. “I also think that we find ourselves drawn to people who validate what we feel about ourselves. And when your abuse makes you feel like shit, you’re drawn to people who treat you like shit.”)

Late one night, she sat awake obsessing over Riley, who had been coach at Oregon State in 1998 and had returned in 2003 after a brief stint in the NFL. She decided she wanted to talk to him. “Somehow,” she says, “that felt like a way to begin the healing process.” Perhaps she’d show up at his office. Perhaps she’d write him a letter. First, though, she wanted to read a little bit more about who he was. She read stories painting him as a wonderful man, someone who never cursed, who went to church each Sunday, and who treated every player like his son. She felt sick. She wondered: “Am I the only person who hates this guy?”

Then she found a story about another Oregon State player who had been arrested on violent charges and suspended for what felt to Tracy like too little time. She clicked on the email address of the writer of that story, Oregonian columnist John Canzano, and she wrote him an angry message about the ways Riley responded to her experience in 1998. “I get sick of reading articles about how great a guy Mike Riley is,” she wrote. “All he cares about is winning. Over the years his players have victimized people and his handling of these cases is like a slap in the face for the victims. Not only am I trying to deal with the devastation that this assault has brought to my life, but I feel re-victimized by his lack of compassion. Gang-rape and sodomy do not deserve a one-game suspension. He is in a position where he can effect change and he does nothing.”

Minutes later, Canzano replied, thanking her for the note and asking Tracy if she wanted to meet over coffee.

She did. Months later, in November 2014, Canzano published a piece telling Tracy’s story: “16 years after Oregon State football gang-rape allegation, Brenda Tracy steps from the shadows.” The next month, Canzano published an investigation into the ways Oregon State and local authorities had handled Tracy’s case. It showed that although the university had access to the police report, and had sanctioned Carlyle and Dandridge with 25 hours of community service, participation in educational programs, and “conduct probation” in addition to their football suspension, OSU officials never brought the case to a student-conduct hearing. “We had no idea back then how to conduct an investigation,” former vice provost for student affairs Larry Roper told The Oregonian. Law enforcement had its own failures: The Oregonian piece described how periodic reviews of evidence storage led to Corvallis police and the district attorney’s office deciding to destroy the physical evidence from Tracy’s case with three years remaining on the statute of limitations.

For years, Tracy had been devastated by the effects of her experience. At times, though, she felt even more devastated by the relative inaction in its wake. Jennifer Freyd, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, calls this “institutional betrayal” — the ways governments, universities, and other institutions fail those who are in their care. “There are certain responses to traumas that we see time and time again,” Freyd says. “Anxiety, depression, dissociation, and so on. But what our research shows is that when someone experiences trauma and is then failed in some way by a larger institution, those symptoms are exacerbated. There’s this conflict between the need to believe in or stay attached to an institution and the reality that that same institution is mistreating you. It’s incredibly toxic to remain in that bind.”

Tracy long harbored a sense of betrayal by the university, by the police, by the DA. She believed that she should have been persuaded to testify, that she should have been told that she had a strong case. As years passed, her pain and resentment hardened mostly around one man: Riley. She says she hated Riley even more than the men she says raped her. “I can rationalize a rapist,” Tracy says. “That’s what they do. They hurt people. What I can’t rationalize is good people not doing the right thing. What I can’t rationalize is a one-game suspension for gang rape. I can’t rationalize why a football game is more important than my life.”

After Tracy came forward, Oregon State conducted its own investigation into the handling of her case. In its review, the school found its sanctions on Carlyle and Dandridge to be “grossly inadequate.”

“While we cannot undo this nightmare,” Oregon State president Ed Ray wrote to Tracy in a 2014 letter after the investigation, “we apologize to you for any failure on Oregon State University’s part to better assist you in 1998.” Ray continued: “If this case happened today and was reported to OSU, we would pursue more significant student conduct actions. … Most importantly, we would work with the survivor to address the effects of the violence.”

The school’s response to The Oregonian’s story about Tracy was prompt and thorough, an institution acknowledging its own wrongs. For Freyd, this represented an example of institutional betrayal’s inverse: “institutional courage.” Says Freyd: “This isn’t rocket science. Bad responses to disclosures of sexual assault lead to bad outcomes. Good responses lead to better outcomes. Whoever you are, whether an individual or an institution, you can make it better or you can make it worse. And it’s never too late. Tremendous healing can occur when an institution shows humanity and acknowledges that a wrong was done.”

When asked whether Freyd’s description of institutional courage felt true to her experience, Tracy said: “Oh, 1 million percent. It’s interesting — as one survivor, I’ve experienced both institutional betrayal and institutional courage. And the betrayal is so unbelievably painful. And the only reason I’m able to process it and deal with it is because of the courage part. Can you imagine where I’d be if they’d just said, ‘Sorry, this happened a long time ago; it’s not our problem’? I don’t even like to think about how that might have affected me.”

Stanford football players
Members of the Stanford football team wear T-shirts marking the first #settheexpectation game, which they played against Arizona State in September.
Courtesy of Brenda Tracy

Telling her story to The Oregonian gave Tracy an energy she’d never known. “It was life-changing,” she says. “Before that, I was living in a self-imposed prison of shame and silence. Like, ‘You’re gross and damaged. Stay over there and be quiet.’ I was two people. When I told my story I became one person instead of two.” Now she channeled that energy toward a search for justice. She reached out to several attorneys. Could they help her finally press charges against her alleged rapists?

No. They couldn’t. The statute of limitations had long ago expired. Tracy met with one woman, though, who offered her another option. Jacqueline Swanson, an Oregon-based attorney who represents survivors of sexual violence, remembers telling Tracy, “There’s nothing we can do to vindicate your case right now, but if you want, we can try to change the law. We can work together to make it better for other people moving forward.” Tracy beamed, excited and a little surprised. “Yeah!” Swanson remembers her saying. “Can we really do that?”

They could. Tracy drove to the state Capitol in February 2015 and walked into the office of state Senate President Peter Courtney and met immediately with his legislative director, Anna Braun. “What can we do?” Tracy asked. “How can we help survivors?” That winter state legislators had introduced a bill to extend the statute of limitations on rape cases in Oregon from six years to 12. Tracy testified before lawmakers, telling her story and pleading for help. “I remember the first time I ever listened to her,” Aaron Knott, the legislative director for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, told me. “She walks in, and you immediately notice her. She’s a new face who’s clearly nervous to be there. She gets up in front of the committee and begins telling her story. By the end of the story she’s crying, and probably half a dozen people on the committee are crying. These are all professional policy people and lobbyists. We’re used to listening to testimony. But that day you just felt, immediately, this woman had a story and a presence that cut through anything that we were all used to. This was a perspective that no one had heard this directly.”

Tracy worked with legislators to pass the law extending the statute of limitations in 2015. Then in 2016, she worked to successfully pass two more state laws: one ensuring that rape kits would be tested in a timely matter, and another that would allow prosecution of first-degree sex crimes beyond the 12-year statute of limitations if new corroborating evidence emerged.

“She’s a juggernaut,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told me. Wyden has met with Tracy to discuss issues related to sexual violence, and he consulted her on a letter he and seven Senate colleagues recently sent to the NCAA urging a uniform policy regarding the admission or transfer of student-athletes with a history of violent behavior. “In these debates, survivor stories are the coin of the realm. Nothing else is as powerful to legislators. We get drenched in studies and statistics and articles. But the human connection is the key to unlocking support. You never have legislators stand up and say, ‘I want to be awful to someone who’s been through this.’ But they don’t necessarily register the impact they may have. Stories like Brenda’s cut through that.”

Photo by Taylor Hatmaker

Tracy still found herself drawn to the idea of meeting and confronting Riley, even after she began telling her story publicly. When the coach started getting calls from Canzano about two players, one woman, and one night 16 years before, he found himself shaken. “It made me do a lot of self-reflection,” Riley told me recently. “The first realization was, ‘Wow. I missed the boat here. Badly.’ It was a mistake, but it was the mistake of a life. Of affecting someone’s life in this horrible way. And that’s just a horrible feeling. No, not a feeling. A knowledge. A horrible, horrible knowledge.”

Riley had long prided himself on valuing the educational aspects of coaching more than the pursuit of championships. Tracy’s story challenged his sense of himself. “I was really sad,” he says. “I was really personally disappointed. I liked to think that we had a program with some substance, with some values. But knowing something like this, it makes you really do a lot of self-reflection. You desperately want to make it better.”

After Canzano connected Tracy and Riley, the coach called Tracy and floated an idea: Would she like to come speak to his team? In June 2016, more than a year after Riley left Oregon State for Nebraska, Tracy boarded a plane.

She was terrified. She stood in a lobby at the University of Nebraska’s football facility, waiting to meet one of the men who had hurt her, the man she long believed had prioritized a game over her life, and she found herself paralyzed. “My brain,” she says, “had to literally tell my feet to move, just so I could go in that room and face him. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. One step at a time.”

She’d spoken to Riley by phone and found him warm and kind, but still, she didn’t know what to expect. She hoped Riley had invited her because he wanted to hear her pain. She wondered, though, how genuine that desire was. Then he opened the door, and she shook his hand and immediately knew — this was real. For an hour, Tracy unleashed the force of her pain. Riley listened. “I knew I had hurt her,” he says, “to the base level of being hurtful.” He apologized for his inaction. He told her he was excited to hear her speak. After their meeting he introduced her to his players and suddenly Tracy was standing in front of 100 strangers, about to tell the story of one of the worst moments of her life.

She told them in detail, with emotion, sometimes in tears. At one point, she pointed at Riley. “For 16 years,” she said, “I hated your coach.” The players seemed stunned, unsure of how to respond. “As uncomfortable as it was to hear someone say that,” Riley remembers, “I knew it was good for our players to hear it. It was real.”

That day in Lincoln, she forgave Riley. His genuine apology made that easier than it could have been. But Tracy had already decided that she would forgive him, even if she’d found him remorseless. “Forgiveness,” she says, “was for me. It was not for him. It was for me. It was for me to let go of the hatred I had for this man. For me to put it aside and move forward. I needed that. No matter what, I needed that.”

As Riley listened to Tracy and confronted his past inaction, he continued to evaluate his own attitudes around allegations of sexual violence. “I look back on it, and I realize I was really ill equipped to make the decision I made,” Riley says. “Now, I would make a complete suspension of the players for the time that this would play out, and I would be an advocate for the victim. Back then, I made a decision based on very little knowledge. I relied on the judicial system to base my decision, and now that seems so incomplete.”

Nebraska coach Mike Riley and Brenda Tracy
Nebraska coach Mike Riley and Brenda Tracy
Courtesy Brenda Tracy

Immediately after Tracy met Riley, the story of their encounter went viral. Tracy started fielding requests from reporters and emails from survivors. Next, she received an invitation to speak at Baylor. In July, she traveled to Waco and told her story to members of the program perhaps most closely associated with a culture of sexual violence. Then she got a call from Oklahoma. Then SMU. Then South Alabama. Throughout the fall of 2016, Tracy traveled around the country and told her story. She took a leave from her nursing job. Within a few months, advocacy became her full-time job (schools pay her for her appearances). “When everything first happened,” she says, “I thought it would be, like, 15 minutes. People would hear my story, it would die down, and then I’d go back to work and my life. I had no idea what it would turn into. It just keeps going. It’s like I’m an accidental spokesperson.”

She’s one of several advocates who work around the intersection of sports and sexual violence. Others include Alexis Jones, a former contestant on Survivor, who started the ProtectHer program to educate student-athletes on the importance of respecting women, and Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback, who speaks to teams about divorcing the concept of masculinity from the need to be aggressive. “We’re in a moment where people like Brenda are being listened to and heard,” McPherson told me. “That’s an amazing thing. And now we need to keep moving forward and begin to question what it means to be a man.”

After she finishes telling her story, often crying and shaking as she recounts its most horrific moments, Tracy issues a challenge to the players. “Rape,” she tells the players at Houston, “is a men’s issue.”

Sitting in her car one day, she explains further: “Women are taught from the time we’re little girls how to prevent our own rape. We learn so many rules. ‘Don’t walk alone at night.’ ‘Hold your keys in a way that you can fight off an attacker.’ ‘Don’t wear a skirt that’s too short.’ ‘Use the buddy system.’ ‘Don’t let anyone else make you a drink.’ When we learn so many of these rules, it’s no wonder that the moment we get raped, we immediately start to blame ourselves.”

Tracy wants to shift the responsibility. “A lot of people look at football players and say you’re the problem,” she tells the University of Houston team. “I look at you and think you’re the solution.” In a widely cited 2002 study, 6.4 percent of college men indicated they had either attempted to or successfully raped someone, and most were repeat offenders. That research has since been contested, with a 2015 study measuring the percentage of campus rapists as a much higher portion of the population — 10.8 percent. On football rosters with more than 100 players — just as in any large group of men — there exists a fair chance of any given team having at least one perpetrator on its roster. “College is a time when you’re experiencing things that you’ve maybe never experienced before,” says Stanford’s Shaw. “Maybe you’re exploring your own boundaries. But we have to educate our young men that your boundaries may be different from someone else’s boundaries. You cannot violate another person’s boundaries.”

Tracy realizes she may have offenders in her audience. She targets her message, though, to the vast majority of the players in the room who are unlikely to ever perpetrate a violent act but have the ability to shift the culture among their peers. At Houston, she says: “You might think to yourselves, ‘I don’t commit rape. I don’t beat on women. Why is this my problem?’ I’ll tell you why it’s your problem. Because if women could stop sexual violence, we would have already done it. Eve would have done it. The first woman on the planet would have done it. And do you think that rapists are going to stop it? No. Of course not. So it’s up to you, the 90 percent of men who would not commit rape, to put an end to it.”

As campus sexual violence gains more attention nationwide, efforts to educate men have proliferated. Bystander intervention programs at the University of New Hampshire have correlated with a significant decrease in reports of unwanted sexual contact. The University of Kentucky developed the Green Dot program, designed to teach students how to identify situations that may lead to violence and then how to intervene. The program has been implemented in high schools across the state and has correlated with a more than 50 percent drop in reports of sexual violence in those schools. A national program that targets high school male athletes, Coaching Boys Into Men, trains coaches to teach their players about healthy relationship skills and abusive-behavior intervention. A study showed that boys whose schools implemented the program were less likely to perpetrate dating violence and another study showed they were more likely to intervene when witnessing abusive or disrespectful behaviors, such as telling an adult or discouraging the violent acts.

“I honestly believe men are the answer,” Tracy says. “We’re trying to end something. We’re trying to shift a culture. And it’s a culture among men and boys. In order to do it, so much of it has to be led by men and boys.”

After Tracy spoke at Houston, Cougars cornerback Isaiah Johnson lingered in the meeting room, waiting for the chance to thank her. “I feel excited,” Johnson told me. “Like, powerful. I honestly haven’t thought too much about this before, but seeing the way that it impacts someone’s life — like, seeing how this really destroyed her, and it took her years to build herself back up — it’s amazing to me. How could you hear that and not want to start talking about it? How could you not want to start talking to the younger generation, telling them not to talk about females certain ways? This is serious. And we can really put a stop to it.”

When Tracy spoke at Colgate University in September, sophomore defensive back Abu Daramy-Swaray sat in the audience, rapt. Several days before Tracy spoke, Daramy-Swaray had received a text from a female friend. She told him she’d been raped. “At first, I didn’t know what to say,” Daramy-Swaray told me. “My first response was to ask her questions about it, like, ‘Do you remember his face?’” After hearing Tracy speak, Daramy-Swaray spoke with her privately, asking for advice about his friend. “Hearing her say, ‘Men, you’re the solution,’ really changed my perspective,” says Daramy-Swaray. “It made me want to go back to my friend and be more involved. It made me go back and make sure she knew that I heard her pain, and that I was here for her, and that I wanted to do whatever I possibly could to help her get through this.”

For Tracy, each speech has the power to further her own healing. She walks into rooms and opens herself up, and she finds empathy and affirmation, an audience prepared to engage with the depths of her pain. After speaking at the University of Oregon one morning this spring, Tracy seems elated when she returns to her truck. “That,” she says, “was amazing. Just amazing.” The players were attentive, the coaches eager to form a lasting partnership. Now, sitting in her truck, she scrolls through her phone. “Look at all these tweets!” she says, reading her mentions from Ducks players. For now she feels heard, empowered, like her experience and her work have the potential to cause change.

Tracy offers college teams this pledge form, which says signers understand that sexual and domestic violence is a problem that won’t be tolerated.
Courtesy Brenda Tracy

“That’s a gift,” Tracy says. “So many survivors don’t get to experience what I’ve experienced. They’re voiceless — not because they can’t speak but because people won’t listen.” It’s the very brutality of what Tracy went through that helps her find a sympathetic audience. “The blessing and the curse of my story is that it’s so egregious,” she says. “It’s so clear-cut. Not everyone has a rape kit. Not everyone has testimony like mine. People know that my story is real. You can’t say that I’m a liar — that’s the blessing. The curse is that that’s not the rule. That’s not what so many rapes look like. It leaves out all the other people. What about the woman who goes on four dates with a guy, thinks she might want to have sex with him, but never consents? That is rape. Her pain is real. I want to get to a point where she can just tell her story. She doesn’t have to have this bulletproof story with police reports and everything. She just says what happened and people believe her.”

football helmet
A helmet that the Stanford football team presented to Tracy. The helmet bears a ribbon representing the Set the Expectation movement.
Courtesy of Brenda Tracy

Still, Tracy’s life, like the lives of so many rape survivors, can be marked by isolation. The force of Tracy’s trauma can still overtake her at any moment. She hears stories from so many survivors, often on social media and sometimes when she speaks to athletes. Every now and then, one takes her back to that night in 1998.

In addition to her legislative and committee work, Tracy also launched a campaign called Set the Expectation, which asks coaches and players to sign a pledge saying they understand that sexual and domestic violence “is NEVER okay and will not be tolerated” and that perpetrating violence may result in their dismissal from the team. This spring, Penn State’s men’s basketball team became the first to sign the pledge, followed shortly by Stanford football. Says Shaw: “We told our players, this is a pledge to yourself. You’re signing it for yourself. This is how I’m going to conduct my relationships. This is how a Stanford man should operate.” In September, the Cardinal played Arizona State in the first #settheexpectation game. Both teams wore teal-and-purple stickers on their helmets, representing awareness about sexual and relationship violence. The student section wore Set the Expectation T-shirts, and fans were invited in the concourse to sign pledges to combat sexual and relationship violence.

Posted by Brenda Tracy on Monday, October 2, 2017

For Tracy, though, measuring progress remains a challenge. She can see it in the response she gets from her speeches, in the laws she helps pass in her state, in the signatures from coaches and players vowing that sexual violence will not be a part of the culture of their team. “What I want,” Tracy says, “is the complete eradication of sexual violence in our society. That’s the goal. It’s a big goal. But it’s a goal that I have to keep working toward.”

One afternoon this spring, Tracy sits in her truck, idling in a suburban Portland parking lot, and she smiles. She has just finished telling me the story of what happened to her in 1998, but now she’s allowing her mind to wander, imagining life in a state with a different statute of limitations. “We would be going to court,” she says. “I would be prosecuting.”

Even in a state where the statute of limitations now prevents her from pursuing her case, Tracy imagines that the men she says raped her will still face their own repercussions. “Every time I’m on TV, I hope they see it,” she says. “Like, I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going away. You’re going to turn on your TV and see me and I hope it ruins your day.

“‘I did 16 years, and now you’re going to do 16 years.’ I’m done protecting them. I protected them for 16 years with my silence. I insulated them and made sure they were OK while I suffered in silence. And I refuse to do that anymore. So if this trauma was a huge brick suitcase I’ve been carrying around, then I’ve just given it back to them. Like, ‘Here, this is your suitcase. This is yours. Now you clean it up. I don’t want it anymore.’”

Her work and her healing are bound up together. With every step toward changes in culture, Tracy finds greater peace in herself. “Every small step forward that we make,” she says, “I’m getting justice. When I see a player tweet ‘Set the Expectation,’ when I hear another survivor tell her story, when I see a coach say that he’s not going to have any tolerance for sexual violence, when we pass a law expanding rights for survivors — that’s my justice. I may not have gotten my justice then, but I’m definitely getting my justice now.”


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