Column One: By detailing the horrific events of her gang rape, one woman fights to end sexual violence on college campuses
The buzz of the lights. That is all you can hear in this big gymnasium, the buzz of the lights overhead and the sound of Brenda Tracy’s voice, which remains steady even as she begins to cry.
Her gaze shifts to the floor, if only for a moment. Standing alone on an empty basketball court, she straightens up and looks at the hundreds of people watching from the stands.
Dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, Tracy resumes telling them about the night so long ago when she stopped by a friend’s apartment. She recalls the football players who were there, how they persuaded her to have a drink, how she passed out a short time later.
“The first time I regained consciousness, I became immediately aware I was laying on my back on the floor,” she says. “I was naked and I couldn’t move my arms or legs.”
The man on her left tried to force her to have oral sex. So did the man on her right.
“So I turned from them and looked up and the third man was raping me,” she says. “And I remember feeling like I was trying to say or yell ‘Stop.’”
Twenty years later, this is what the 45-year-old mother of two does, traveling the country to stand before strangers and share her most awful memory. She has appeared before 110,000 fans at Michigan’s football stadium and 15 or so players on a basketball team. This crusade, which started years before the #MeToo movement, takes her any place where people will listen.
On this night, at Sacramento State, the school has made attendance mandatory for all of its athletes. A half-hour earlier, the 500 or so young men and women walked in chatting, laughing, searching for friends to sit beside; now they have fallen quiet, leaning forward, some of them lowering their heads.
Tracy has no memorized speech, no notes or litany of statistics about sexual violence in America. She hits her audience with something different: sheer honesty, a graphic and unflinching description of that night.
“The next time I came into consciousness, one of the men was cradling me in his arm and he was pouring a bottle of hard alcohol down my throat and I was choking and gagging on it,” she says. “And I passed out again.”
In theory, this was supposed to get easier for her — the telling — but it hasn’t. Wiping away tears, she says: “I’ve shared my story at least 80 times, and I cannot go back into that apartment and tell you what they did to me without feeling this intense amount of shame and embarrassment and pain.”
Something about Tracy suggests a quiet strength. Something about the angle of her shoulders, the straight, dark bangs that frame an earnest smile.
Her presentation begins with a warning — “The things I’m going to talk about are uncomfortable” — and a vow that the tale will be “kind of rough and hard but it gets better. And there is hope at the end.”
Hope in the form of new laws she has spearheaded to bolster victims’ rights in her home state of Oregon. Hope in the form of national awards she has received and sports organizations, such as the Big Sky Conference, that have adopted her policies to address sexual violence on campus.
But getting to the good part is tough. First you have to make it through the night of June 24, 1998.
To that point, her life had not been easy. Tracy tells the audience that, while growing up, she was abused on separate occasions by a relative and a babysitter’s boyfriend. Pregnant in high school, she was disowned by some in her family because the father was black.
That relationship produced two boys but was marked by abuse and ended in divorce. Tracy was 24, dating an Oregon State football player, when she tagged along with a girlfriend to an apartment that belonged to another player on the team. The girlfriend soon retreated to a bedroom with one of the men, leaving Tracy alone with two Oregon State athletes, a junior college player and a high school recruit.
If there is any small mercy in what happened next, it is that Tracy estimates she was conscious for only a small fraction of an ordeal that lasted six hours. Her fragmented memories include pleading with the men at some point, telling them she felt nauseated.
“So one of them picked me up kind of like a rag doll and carried me to the bathroom,” she says. “He laid me over the counter and he shoved my head into the bathroom sink and, as I was vomiting on myself in the sink, he was raping me from behind.”
The next morning, she woke on the floor, still naked, with food crumbs and bits of potato chips pressed into her skin. Gum was stuck in her hair.
“I mostly just remember, in that moment, feeling like a piece of trash. I was a piece of trash they had forgotten on the living-room floor,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like a human.”
Her girlfriend urged her to forget about what had happened, but, after speaking briefly with police, Tracy and her mother went to the hospital for a rape exam. The next day, the four men were arrested.
Any sense of justice was short-lived.
In the days that followed, the community seemed to turn against the unnamed accuser, siding with the popular Oregon State team, openly wondering why this woman — some people guessed who she was — went to the apartment that night, why she drank alcohol.
“This happened 20 years ago, but it’s exactly the same thing that still happens today,” she says. “Any time a person comes forward, especially against an athlete or certain men in positions of power, it’s ‘Who is she? What’s in it for her?’”
In interviews contained in a Corvallis Police Department report from 1998, the suspects said Tracy had consumed only one gin-and-orange juice but had seemed drunk. All four recall her saying “No” or asking to be left alone at some point. They all tended to minimize their participation in various sex acts that occurred, more often implicating one another.
One suspect described the incident as “risky” and another, when asked if Tracy’s version was true, replied: “Kind of.”
Still, she recalls that prosecutors warned her the case might drag on for years and be difficult to prove. When she ultimately decided not to cooperate, the charges were dropped.
“The witness has not recanted or changed the statements she originally gave to the police,” Pam Hediger, a Benton County prosecutor, told the Associated Press then. “Part of the decision and process is that she doesn’t want any more of the public exposure than she’s already had.”
Oregon State conducted a separate investigation, but when the next season came around, the two football players inside the apartment received suspensions of only one game each.
Coach Mike Riley told the media that his players were good young men who made “a bad choice.”
When a woman is raped, her body becomes a crime scene. The rape kit exam is long and invasive, requiring that evidence be gathered from hair, fingernails and genitalia.
It is, as Tracy says, “the very last thing you want to do after you’ve been assaulted.”
“This happened 20 years ago, but it’s exactly the same thing that still happens today.”
But something unexpected occurred that day when her mother took her to the hospital. A nurse named Jenny attended to her in a manner both caring and dignified. Struck by this saving grace, Tracy began asking questions.
“Jenny would say, ‘Brenda, we have to do the vaginal exam,’ and I said, ‘OK, how did you become a nurse?’” she recalls. “And she said, ‘Brenda, we have to pluck 10 head hairs and 10 pubic hairs,’ and I said, ‘Jenny, where did you go to school?’”
Within months, Tracy enrolled at a community college, determined to become a registered nurse. She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a master’s in business and health management.
From the outside, it might have seemed that she was moving onward, raising her two boys as a single mother, working hard enough to buy a house. No one could see the rage that simmered beneath the surface, the depression and the borderline eating disorder, the times when she lost her temper and yelled at her sons.
“Most days,” she says, “I wanted to die.”
It wasn’t until 2014, upon turning 40, that Tracy realized something had to change. She sought counseling and talked to a lawyer about reviving her case, but the statute of limitations had long since run out.
Her thoughts returned to coach Riley and the words that still ate at her. “I didn’t understand how gang rape was a ‘bad choice,’” she says.
Searching the internet, she found an article about another incident in which Riley had given a similar, light penalty to a player implicated in a domestic-violence incident.
Around college football, Riley had always been known as a nice guy, not the yelling sort of coach, always cordial with reporters and fans. Tracy tapped out a furious, late-night message to the article’s writer, telling him about her case, saying: “See? He’s not a good guy.”
A few minutes later, columnist John Canzano answered her email.
One conversation led to another. When Canzano suggested that others needed to hear her story, she agreed to an interview. People would later say she was brave, but courage had nothing to do with it.
“That was an act of desperation,” she says.
In November 2014, the Oregonian published her story. After 16 years of living in what Tracy calls “a prison of silence and shame,” she felt liberated. And the response was startling.
This time, the community sympathized as other victims came forward to support her. Edward Ray, named president of Oregon State in 2003, issued an apology, stating: “There is no statute of limitations on compassion or basic human decency…. This is a moment from which each of us can learn. But it is mostly a moment for us to help Ms. Tracy heal.”
Then came another surprise. In the years since the attack, Riley had left Oregon State to coach in the NFL before returning for a second stint at the school. The initial newspaper story and follow-up articles shook him.
“I knew I was wrong in the way I had treated the situation,” he now says. “It was one of those deals where, man, you kind of wish it would go away, but I had to deal with it.”
“I didn’t understand how gang rape was a ‘bad choice.’”
The coach asked to meet with Tracy, a request she ignored at first. The wound still ran too deep and there were other things to think about as she began visiting the state capital, successfully lobbying to extend the statute of limitation for rapes and create victim protection laws.
These efforts earned her a part-time consulting position at Oregon State and a Special Courage Award from the U.S. Justice Department, which proclaimed “her story and her work are changing the landscape of sexual assault prevention and response.”
As for Riley, he left Oregon State to take a job running the marquee football program at the University of Nebraska. Still, he couldn’t get Tracy off his mind.
“I didn’t want it to be one of those things where, every night when you go to bed, you wish you had done it differently,” he says.
The coach tried one more time, inviting her to Lincoln.
In the summer of 2016, she finally agreed to meet with Riley, sitting in his office for more than an hour and telling him how much his words had hurt, how much she hated him.
The worst thing you can do to sexual-assault victims, Tracy says, is tell them to get over it. Or offer one of those apologies that begin with: I’m sorry, but ….
Riley sat there and listened quietly before responding and, as Tracy recalls, “did a beautiful thing for me that day. He held himself accountable … he didn’t make excuses, he didn’t rationalize … none of that.”
Later, they moved to an auditorium where scores of Nebraska players waited. Riley thought they could learn something from Tracy.
It was the first time she shared her story with a group of strangers and she was terrified. Would they believe her? Would they even listen?
“You could hear a pin drop in that room,” Riley says. “She’s very transparent in the way she talks and, whatever gift that is, it really makes you think — this is a real person who was really affected by a bad, tragic situation.”
In what would become a recurring scene, players stepped forward to hug her at the end. A few hovered on the periphery, waiting for a chance to quietly give what Tracy calls their “disclosures.”
Occasionally, a man will tell her that he has been wrongly accused of rape. More often, her listeners talk about a mother or sister who has been assaulted.
“There is so much pain in every single room that I go in. So many people think they are alone.”
When news of the meeting spread through the media, high schools and colleges began calling, asking Tracy to address their teams.
Her schedule is now packed with schools willing to pay a speaking fee plus expenses. In 13 scheduled appearances from last fall to January, she traveled from Minnesota to Louisiana, from Ohio to Virginia.
After an appearance at the University of Michigan last summer, the players invited her back as an honorary captain, accompanying her to midfield for the coin toss before their early September game against Western Michigan.
“We all learned so much from Brenda,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh says. “Her story is amazing, her work is amazing.”
The talks are emotionally taxing and there are people who troll her online, questioning her honesty, her motives. She pencils “self-care” days into her calendar, staying home in pajamas, eating bowls of Raisin Bran Crunch or Lucky Charms and watching movies on the couch.
“Comedies, action movies, stuff I don’t have to think about,” she says. “I tell my family we’re not talking about rape that day.”
Near the end of her talk at Sacramento State, with the audience so quiet, still listening intently after an hour, she offers one statistic, one message.
If women could stop sexual violence, she says, they would have done so long ago. Her focus turns to the men in the room, but if they are expecting bitterness or a scolding, they get something different.
Citing studies on rape perpetration, Tracy suggests that roughly 10% of the male population is responsible for the great majority of sexual violence. She tells the men: “I’m not here because I think you’re the problem. I think you’re the solution.
“I travel the country and talk to the 90%,” she continues. “I ask them to step up and take a stand.”
If you see a rape, do something to stop it. If you hear about an attack, tell someone.
When she finishes with this appeal, loud applause breaks the silence, athletes rising in ones and twos, then in larger groups, until everyone is standing. They pour down to the court, men and women, to hug her. Some have tears in their eyes.
“It’s so heartfelt,” says Devan Graves, an 18-year-old baseball player. “I don’t think you really understand until you hear it.”
As always, a few young men and women linger at the edge of the crowd, waiting for a chance to speak with Tracy in private.
“All the stories I hear,” she says. “For some of them, I’m the first person they’ve talked to about it.”
The fear she always feels before addressing a crowd has dissipated, replaced by exhaustion and that honest smile. Tracy has never tried to contact her attackers and has no interest in hearing from them — she seems to find closure in moments like these.
“This is why I’m on Earth,” she says. “This is what I’m meant to do.”
It is nearing 9 o’clock, the gym finally empty. Thanking her hosts once more, she leaves to return to her hotel. There is a flight to catch early in the morning, another group of strangers to meet in Wisconsin the next night.
Additional credits: Produced by Justin L. Abrotsky. Video edited by Jackeline Luna.
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