The president. The Supreme Court. Hollywood. Journalism. Restaurants. Comedy. No aspect of American life has been untouched by sexual assault, sexual harassment and #MeToo, including college sports.
It seems impossible to get through a season without some kind of scandal — the repeated incidents at Baylor University under former football coach Art Briles, Michigan State’s enabling of USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer’s mishandling of domestic violence allegations against one of his now-former assistants.
But against that backdrop, college football players, fans and coaches have been having a conversation about toxic masculinity for longer than other professional spheres, and for several years before #MeToo. A big reason for that is Brenda Tracy.
In 1998, when she was 24, Tracy was gang-raped by four men, including two Oregon State University football players, in a Corvallis apartment. The case never went to trial, and the OSU players were suspended from the team for just one game, with then-OSU head coach Mike Riley saying they made a “bad choice.” Tracy lived with that trauma — the shame, the fear, the anger, the public second-guessing of her, the anonymous victim, rather than her rapists — for 16 years. At her lowest moments, she considered suicide, but remained resilient; raised two sons, began a career as a registered nurse in Portland, and earned an MBA.
Then, in 2014, she went public with her experience in an interview with Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano, and began speaking to football coaches and their players — starting with a penitent Mike Riley, then at the University of Nebraska — about rape culture and consent. She now tells her story as a full-time job, working with universities, educating student-athletes, lobbying both the Oregon Legislature and the NCAA for reforms, and asking fans, coaches and teams to #SetTheExpectation: A pledge to stand up against sexism and violence against women. As a result, Tracy is a nationally in-demand presence, but it’s also a demanding gig, with constant travel and awful online critics, to say nothing of the emotional toll taken by constantly reliving her own rape while also hearing the stories of other survivors.
“I live in this dark world of rape and sexual violence, 24/7,” Tracy said. But two decades after that night in Corvallis, she also said she wouldn’t take it back, as it has brought her to her current life and purpose. “Somebody has to be out there talking about survivors, and that’s my job: To make sure you don’t forget about us.”
Jason Cohen: I’ve spoken to Tracy several times in the last six months, with #MeToo incidents coming to light regularly in between our conversations. When news broke of how Ohio State coach Urban Meyer handled — or didn’t handle — the domestic violence allegations against one of his assistants, a lot of people thought he was sure to be fired.
Brenda Tracy: I thought it was encouraging when Meyer was immediately placed on suspension. When we look at Hollywood and at the #MeToo movement and you see a Matt Lauer getting dismissed, I thought to myself, “OK, is the #MeToo movement going to finally visit sports? Are we going to say this is unacceptable when it’s one of the most powerful coaches?” But money and winning have a way of eclipsing sexual assault scandals. Ultimately, it was disappointing to see the coach only get suspended — a shining example of the pervasiveness of the male power we’re fighting against.
JC: Is it somehow more challenging to deal with this in the world of football, when you also have a president and a Supreme Court justice setting a bad example?
BT: It’s not easy, but you just keep grinding and hope that somebody’s affected. We need more people like me out there working and doing things to help change this culture. It kind of feels like an earthquake hit, and there’s all this rubble, and it’s like, “what do we do with it now?”
But the fact that we’re even talking about these things is progress. It used to be you didn’t talk about any of this. No one came forward to share their personal stories, and no one was being held accountable because you weren’t even saying that there was a problem.
JC: On your Twitter feed, your pinned tweet about the #SetTheExpectation campaign is a video clip of four college coaches you’ve worked with. The message — “It’s time for every coach to step up and set the expectation: That sexual violence and physical abuse are never OK” — seems so simple. A sentiment nobody could disagree with.
BT: It seems simple. I think there’s something about going on record, making a public stand on this issue, and saying that you’re going to do this. That in itself is an act of courage. Some of my trolls and naysayers, they talk about the fact that hardly anyone has signed the #SetTheExpectation pledge. Well, the pledge is not a joke. It’s saying to the coach, “you’re going to hold your players accountable, and your staff, and yourself.” It’s not just, “oh, I pledge to be a good person.” Coaches have to decide: Who are you keeping on your team, and what behavior are you putting up with? What are you allowing to happen within your program? There’s been a lot of sweeping under the rug, ignoring, minimizing.
The coaches who have gone on video and said, “I will set the expectation,” I think that means something, and I would love to see more coaches do that. But some coaches aren’t ready, and that’s fine. I don’t want you to sign the pledge unless you’re willing to follow through. This isn’t about likes and clicks for me. This is about actual change and doing the right thing. So however slowly this goes, it’s fine with me. I just want it to happen.
JC: You say in your presentation that it’s 10 percent of men who perpetrate sexual violence, and it’s up to the other 90 percent to change that.
BT: Call-outs are important, but they’re not enough; we need to give men the tools to be better. I tell men ‘I’m not here because I think you’re the problem; I am here because we need you to be the solution.’ Women can’t stop this alone, so who does that leave? Men have to come to this realization themselves, and then we can actually start having some real conversations. Are you holding each other accountable? What about locker room talk? How do those things contribute to this culture of violence? I think sometimes people think, “well, if I do nothing and I say nothing, then I’m staying out of it.” But isn’t doing nothing actually doing something? Isn’t saying nothing actually saying something?
JC: You’d previously had a #SetTheExpectation football game at Stanford, which is a major program. And then more than 100,000 people at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
BT: Yeah, the thing that was different about the Michigan game was the amount of fans. And this is something that I think about a lot: Being a rape survivor and having to watch tens of thousands of people cheer for the people who hurt you. I don’t know that a lot of people understand what that feels like. I do, and I know other survivors who do.
So being on the field that day and having tens of thousands of people cheer for me, it felt like coming full-circle.
I felt part of me heal. It meant a lot. That game and that day is proof that we can believe survivors. We are capable as a society of doing that, and as football fans, we’re capable of doing that. And I hope that we will do it more.
JC: I feel like one thing college football fans miss is that consent and accountability are about an entire value system, and that value system is compromised when we make sports and winning more important than anything else. Is that part of your educational work?
BT: Yeah, I think so. For whatever reason, some fans have a hard time understanding that. You can be a fan and support your team, and still hold players and schools and coaches accountable for their actions, and expect more of them. It’s not one or the other.
Fandom clouds people’s vision. No, it’s not OK for a 15-year-old to molest a 6-year-old.
But then when it becomes one of their star baseball pitchers, all of a sudden we don’t know how to reconcile that, right? Because it’s my team. So, now we’re going to say, oh, people make mistakes, and they deserve second chances?
JC: You are referring, of course, to Oregon State pitcher Luke Heimlich, who removed himself from the team in 2017 when his conviction for molesting a relative became public, but returned to lead Oregon State to the College World Series championship this past season before going undrafted by Major League Baseball. Some Oregon State fans turned on you because of that.
BT: Oh, yeah. Everyone was supportive of me at Oregon State when I first came forward.
When I called out (OSU President) Ed Ray regarding Luke Heimlich’s pedophilia, people but got really angry. But not everyone.
The fan base was divided, as they are with many of these stories.
It’s frustrating, especially given my history with the school. I will be forever grateful for the way that I was treated (after 2014) and the work that we have done there, but I was dismayed by the way they handled that particular situation. And upset about the way the national conversation around these issues becomes “this is just a mistake” and “people deserve second chances.” Well, what about the victim? What about her second chance? It’s so easy to just not talk about survivors and only talk about this poor perpetrator. I hate that narrative.
JC: At the time, you tweeted that sports aren’t everything. You’re not taking away his humanity; you’re holding him accountable. There’s a difference
BT: Second chances don’t have to involve playing sports, and forgiveness is not the absence of consequences. Playing sports is a privilege, not a right. You don’t get to be on a pedestal where you drive culture and you drive the national conversation and people look up to you as a role model unless you’ve earned it. Character matters. I get threatened and called names because I believe that rapists and child molesters should not get to play college and professional sports. This whole thing of “second chances,” all that means to me is, “We want to win.”
JC: And that’s rape culture. Sometimes I don’t think sports fans understand the term. They think it means that everyone who participates in the culture is a rapist.
BT: What drives culture is attitudes and beliefs. I focus on sports because there’s nothing bigger in America. Sports is our religion, especially men’s basketball and football. It’s molding hearts and minds. People get mad at me like, “Leave sports alone.” No! Those are the stories and these are the people that are driving cultural attitudes and beliefs about survivors.
We have to address misogyny, we have to address victim-blaming, we have to address this rape culture, because all of that, unfortunately, is ingrained in some of our institutions, and some of our men and coaches.
Victim-blaming is at the heart of all of this. We completely take all of the accountability and responsibility from the perpetrator and put it all onto the victim. “She’s in it for the money.” “She shouldn’t have drank.” “She shouldn’t have been there.” “He couldn’t have done this...he’s such a good guy.” Because as a fan, if I can just blame her, then I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to hold anyone accountable. I can still cheer for my team and cheer for my favorite player because if she hadn’t gone there, and if she hadn’t been drinking, none of this would be happening.
JC: Do you ever feel like getting off of Twitter?
BT: I don’t, and I think my trolls serve a purpose. People are surprised at the amount of hate that I receive. They ask me “Why would people threaten you?” They don’t realize that this is what rape survivors go through, especially if you go public and you start talking about these things.
But this is why a lot of us don’t come forward, and why we don’t voice our opinions and push back against misogyny and rape culture.
So for me, the trolls expose themselves, and expose the ugliness of what we deal with.
JC: How do you know who should be ignored versus who should be called out?
BT: You know, it just depends. One of the things I’ve been really battling is people who think that I shouldn’t get paid as a speaker, and they spend a lot of time trying to discredit me. Saying that I only care about money, (that) I don’t care about survivors. There should be no shame attached to a rape survivor getting paid to speak.
The same thing happens any time a rape survivor tries to sue a perpetrator, or the school. The first thing is, oh, she’s money-hungry. She just wants a payday. It’s ridiculous. There’s nobody that woke up and said, “You know what? I want to make a lot of money, so I’m going to get raped. And then I’m going to sue somebody.” Unfortunately, we buy into it, right? When I first came forward with my story, people said you might be able to sue Oregon State University, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to at all. I was like, no, no, no; people will think I’m a gold digger. I had bought into all those stereotypes.
I ultimately decided not to sue Oregon State. But those stereotypes are a weapon used against us to try to discredit us and to silence us. There’s a civil system for a reason. If you have been wronged, you are due compensation for the harm that has been done to you, and rape survivors, we go through some of the most significant trauma and harm there is. It’s sad to me that we’re not encouraged to use the civil system, and it bothers me that the criminal system is so broken. Any avenue of justice we try to use, it doesn’t bode well for us at all.
JC: You’ve previously – and successfully – lobbied for new Oregon laws regarding the criminal statute of limitations for rape, as well as evidence testing. Do you have anything in the works for future legislative sessions?
BT: One of the things I would like to address is the civil statute of limitations, which is two years. Which means that if you are a freshman in college and you get raped and you want to bring a lawsuit, you probably have to sue your school while you’re still going there, which is ridiculous.
JC: Some victims don’t want to sue because they can’t deal with reliving the details of their trauma. Having seen you speak, I know it’s still right there for you every single day.
BT: I have to go right back into that apartment. Every time I stand on a stage and speak, I have to go right back into that apartment and explain to them all the ugly details of what happened to me. And that’s hard, but I think it’s also necessary. If I say to you, I was gang-raped for six hours by four men, I don’t know what that means to you. But if I tell you the details of that night and what exactly happened to me, then it becomes more real, and you’re not able to minimize it and make it into something that feels good for you. Because it’s not, right? You have to understand how disgusting and horrifying and horrible this is, so that you can understand how this affected my life, and why we all need to get involved to make sure that no one goes through this.
I really have learned the power of personal testimony. A lot of people will have never really talked to a survivor. They’ve never heard these stories. I talk about suicide, I talk about domestic violence, sexual assault, being a single mother. I really could be your mom or your sister or your cousin or somebody you know. It really changes that for them.
JC: You have two sons, who are not much older than the college students you work with. Does that help you relate to them?
BT: I think because I have my sons, I feel more inclined to want to walk into rooms full of young men. I have a lot of reason to be angry with men, but because I have sons, I can’t not see the good in men. It’s men that have hurt me, but it’s men that I want to work with, and it’s men who have helped heal me. This football machine created the men who raped me. But it’s still the machine that I want to work within to change things. I can’t imagine doing anything else right now.
This article originally appeared in Street Roots, our sister street paper in Portland, Oregon.
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