Tony Gibson first heard Brenda Tracy speak at January’s American Football Coaches Association convention. The West Virginia defensive coordinator was so moved by the speech from the activist for sexual assault awareness and prevention that he told Mountaineers coaches the next time they gathered as a staff, “This is somebody we really need to bring in.”
Alex Hammond, West Virginia’s chief of staff for football, had been familiar with Tracy’s story. He knew that almost 20 years ago she said she was raped by four men, two of which were Oregon State football players, and that she’d spoken to several college programs in 2016 about the realities of sexual assault.
“We all agreed that this would be someone very valuable to speak to the team,” Hammond said.
Last week, Tracy spoke to the Mountaineers. She told FOX Sports it is probably the 25th college football program she’s spoken to in the past year. Oregon State was the first, back in the fall of 2015.
The need for Tracy and other anti-sexual violence advocates has always been important, but the issue has become dramatically more prevalent in the sports world in the last year in the wake of Baylor’s ongoing sexual assault scandal — as well as the attention generated from the Joe Mixon story at Oklahoma, among other incidents.
Before Tracy was brought into the West Virginia team room and introduced to the Mountaineer players, the coaches told them they were about to discuss “the single most important topic that impacts not only college athletics but college students in general.”
Tracy usually speaks for about 45 minutes and then does a Q&A. Her presentation is often very similar from one school to the next. Sometimes a school will tell her what issues they may be dealing with. But usually she says “they pretty much let me do what I do.”
“I always have an idea of what I plan to say. Number one, I tell my story and I tell my story in very graphic detail because I want to attempt to humanize the issue,” she says. “If I say to you, ‘I was sexually assaulted by four men for six hours,’ I don’t know what that means to you. It could mean nothing. … But if I tell you, in graphic details, the things I remember about that night, I think it’s very different and it makes it very real.”
Tracy, though, says she’s careful not to hang blame on the players she’s speaking to, instead engaging them as being the most important players in putting a stop to sexual violence.
“The other thing I do is I tell these young men that I don’t consider them the problem,” she says. “I consider them the solution to this epidemic and this problem, and it’s the good men that need to start speaking out.
“Ninety-eight percent of all rapes and sexual assaults are carried out by men, and it’s carried out against women, other men, children. It’s only 10 percent of the male population are doing it so that means 90 percent are good. The problem is that among that 90 percent they’re thinking, ‘I don’t hit women. I don’t rape women, so this isn’t my problem.’ And what I say to them is if women (could) stop sexual violence, we’d already have done it. The 10 percent who are committing these problems are not gonna stop, so who does that leave? You wouldn’t ask a child to stop child abuse. You wouldn’t ask a black person to end racism, so this is on men. This is a men’s issue. Usually when you frame this in that context you see a little light bulb go on on and they go, ‘Oh I get it. That makes sense!’”
There are, of course, other hurdles to getting the message through. Tracy sees a culture of entitlement around young men, especially in sports, as well as a prevailing ignorance that tends to excuse away assaults influenced by alcohol. And that’s a big problem.
“Someone will say, ‘Well, this guy and and this girl were both drinking and they went off in this bedroom and we don’t know what really happened, but that’s not rape. It’s just drunken sex,’” Tracy says. “We have to talk about how a woman who is under the influence of alcohol can’t give consent. Why is it the only crime we excuse with alcohol? We don’t excuse any other crime in this country with alcohol other than sexual violence. … People try to make it like there’s so much gray area, when there is really none. It’s either consensual sex or it’s rape. There is no middle ground.”
Despite the challenges, several of the West Virginia players seemed to take Tracy’s message to heart — at least to their Twitter accounts, sending out her mantra: #NotOnMyCampus.
— justin crawford (@datcrawfordboyy) March 16, 2017
— Adam Hensley (@AtomHensley44) March 16, 2017
— Zach Sandwisch〽️ (@ZSandwisch13) March 16, 2017
Tracy, though optimistic, knows that Twitter is a long way from meaningful action.
“Hopefully schools are talking about these things after I leave and these men will pay attention and think, ‘If I see something, say something. This is on me,’” she says. “It’s hard, but I do think we can change this culture. You have to believe the impossible is possible.”
West Virginia, like most of the other programs that invited Tracy to address their teams, wasn’t trying to do any digging out from a scandal or do damage control. Instead, the goal was to educate their student-athletes and raise awareness to the issue of sexual violence, to prevent it from happening.
“Her speech is real,” says Hammond. “It’s not sugar-coated in any way. The details grab your attention and it makes you understand this is what it is. But what Brenda was excellent with is that she didn’t stop with the end of her story. She moved on from, ‘This is what it is’ to ‘This is what we can do about it.’ That’s what makes her so effective. Let’s be part of the solution. That’s what our players really grabbed on to.”
Tracy got a lot of attention stemming from her visit to Baylor last July at the request of interim head coach Jim Grobe, who had replaced the fired Art Briles just over a month before. She told FOX Sports that the tenor of her presentation to the Bears football program — at the time, still in the very thick of dealing with the ramifications of the scandal — was very similar to what she said to West Virginia and other football teams. Tracy felt like she had a productive meeting with the players and in her time with Grobe. But then a member of the Baylor coaching staff asked to speak with her.
In a first-person article in the Huffington Post, Tracy described the interaction she had with the then-unnamed staffer as him being “very angry and defensive about what was happening” and doing “nothing but making Baylor look guilty and he was validating for me that the football culture was toxic and that all the claims being made against them and Art Briles were probably true.”
In the months since then there have been more ugly headlines and allegations out of Baylor, as well as a coaching change. Matt Rhule was hired from Temple to take over. Rhule’s reputation within coaching is very solid, but there have been two embarrassing incidents involving staffers he has hired — and then let go. While to some, the actions of Rhule assistants shouldn’t be tied to what went on under the former regime, Tracy has been very vocal about the culture that she says still exists at Baylor.
“It wasn’t just football and within football. A lot of things had to happen to create this entire culture,” she says. “Coach Rhule has come in and brought a new staff that will help change things, but then he’s also fighting against the rest of the culture around him. You still have lots of people there who are still defending Art Briles. You have a Board of Regents that is only allowing drips of information to come out. … You still have kids there that were there from before that are still ingrained with these deep attitudes and belief systems about how things were. … The culture is not gone. You can’t just remove a coaching staff, and athletic director and the president and say it’s fixed.”
Tracy noted that she appreciates Rhule and believes he is trying to address the problem. But she also thinks he is just “one piece of the puzzle” to fixing the deep-rooted problems at Baylor that have brought issues of sexual violence and dangerous cultures of entitlement in sports to the forefront.
“Baylor has validated that there is an issue,” Tracy says. “My rape happened almost 20 years ago, and this issue has not changed at all. People are finally getting tired of it. In the age of social media, Baylor was a tipping point for us finally, and I’m happy to see that. Enough is enough. Football is great and winning is great, but not at the expense of human lives.”
That sentiment might be the essential conflict Tracy, a registered nurse with an MBA, has to overcome to succeed — the desire to win at all costs vs. doing the right thing. Her Twitter feed now is a mix of the support she has received from her interactions with coaches and players and often nasty exchanges she’s had with Baylor fans, especially since she’s advocated for the Bears football program to get the death penalty. Some think — incorrectly, she says — she’s trying to take football down with Baylor.
“I’m not here to burn down football,” she says. “I’m here to try and use football to create a culture change because I believe you could do it within football. If I could mobilize every football team in this country as a little army, you would see a change in culture and the ripple effects would be massive.”
Despite the skeptics and obstacles, despite the long road ahead, Tracy sees hope in the amount of coaches that have engaged with her, like SMU’s Chad Morris, Oregon’s Willie Taggart and South Florida’s Charlie Strong.
“That teams are proactively seeking me out tells me that they want to change and they want to be part of the solution,” she says. “A lot of good coaches want to change the culture and raise awareness through sports. After I leave, a lot of teams put teal ribbons on their helmets. Wyoming just had a basketball game dedicated to survivors. We’re in the beginning stages, and nothing changes overnight.
“I’ve had people make comments, ‘Brenda’s naive and these football programs are using her and parading her around for PR purposes.’ My response to that is, ‘OK, but I’m getting in front of this team and these young men and I’m planting seeds.’ And if I can even get to one young man there, I’ve done my job.”
In the next week, Tracy plans to launch a campaign called “Set the Expectation.” (“If you don’t set the expectation,” she says, “how do you expect our men to meet it?”) She is pushing for coaches, players and parents (if high schools teams agree to take part) to sign a pledge that says the player understands he will be removed from the team if he commits such an act of violence.
“For me, what does it look like when these eighth grade boys know that, If I commit these acts of violence I’m not going to play high school football?” she says. “I’m never going to get to go to college or live my dream of playing in the NFL? And all these people grooming this young man then know we have to talk about consent. We have to talk about how he interacts with other people. We have to talk about violence and sexual violence because now, his behavior matters. … I look it as a way to take a stand, and it’s about accountability.”