Skip to main content
Publish date:

"There's not enough coaches drawing a line in the sand with their players." A Q&A with Brenda Tracy

A year ago, Luke Heimlich was in the midst of a dream season. He was the best player on college baseball's best team, a left-handed pitcher with an 11-1 record and an 0.76 ERA. The top-seeded Beavers sailed into the College World Series, widely expected to ride their ace lefty to a third national championship.

But on June 15, two days before the CWS was set to begin, The Oregonian reported Heimlich had pleaded guilty to one felony count of sexually molesting a minor. Years prior, a 15-year-old Heimlich was accused of molesting his 6-year-old niece; Heimlich maintains his innocence, but he says he pleaded guilty to minimize his legal risk. (The victim's mother, Heimlich's aunt, maintains he is guilty.)

Heimlich withdrew from the team, and Oregon State lost in the CWS semifinals. Upon the publication of the Oregonian story, OSU president Ed Ray announced Heimlich would be welcome to rejoin the team in 2018, and rejoin he has -- racking up a 13-1 record with a 2.69 ERA for Baseball America's No. 2 ranked team.

The Heimlich case is the cover story for the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, which quoted Brenda Tracy, herself a sexual violence victim as an Oregon State student two decades ago who now uses her experience to create change through sports. Here's what she had to say in the SI piece:

"Ed Ray set an amazing example," says Tracy, of how a university leader can help change the culture. But meeting with Ray a few weeks after the Heimlich story broke left her baffled. It wasn't just his repeated talk about a "second chance," which conflicted with Tracy's belief that Heimlich's presence in an Oregon State uniform helps normalize child sexual abuse. It was the president's uncharacteristic vagueness. They discussed a change in student disclosure rules, but Ray wouldn't answer when Tracy asked how the university first became aware of Heimlich's sex offender status. Indeed, citing privacy restrictions, OSU officials have yet to confirm what the school knew about Heimlich's crime, and when.

"Part of taking on these issues is being accountable," Tracy says. "We've all been asking: When did you know? How did that process go? Was he in the dorms? Was he doing camps with kids? What if there were camps with kids, and parents didn't want to send their kids? As a public we're supposed to make informed decisions, but we can't if we don't know what's going on.

"I'm confused and hurt. I don't mean to get emotional, but ... I am so grateful for what OSU has done for me and never want to sound like I'm not. But it really did hurt me when this whole thing unfolded. Because I don't understand it."

That passage made me think of something I heard Tracy say during her speech at the AFCA Convention in 2017, a quote that has stayed with me ever since. So I reached out to Tracy to ask her about it.

FS: You asked at the 2017 AFCA Convention, "What would happen if every player from junior high on up knew if he hit a woman he wouldn’t play football, wouldn’t go to his dream college?" I don't agree with this line of thinking, but I think some coaches out there might hear that and wonder, "If I cut a guy loose, he's not going to be surrounded by positive role models in his teammates and his coaches, and instead he'll be going God knows what with God knows who. Is that really the best way to handle that?" What's your response to that?

I think that when these things do happen, yeah, that you lose your privilege to play sports and the whole reason I started the Set the Expectation campaign is that came after the AFCA conference of me asking coaches to stand in front of their players and set the expectation that sexual assault physical violence and all the other things are not okay and if players actively participate in these harmful behaviors then they risk losing their eligibility. That's where I have to start is with the coaches. If it's a positive atmosphere and they want their guys around positive role model all that they should be setting expectations to begin with. I don't think it's enough to say, 'We're not going to have these conversations, we're not going to talk about it, we're not going to set the expectation,' and then something happens we're going to say, 'Oh we're going to give him a second chance' without even looking into it. It seems like the knee jerk reaction is, 'Oh, give him a second chance.'

This idea of automatically saying, 'Oh, we need him around positive role models.' Well, have you been a positive role model in the first place? Have you that expectation? Are you having conversations about domestic violence, about sexual assault, about rape, about consent, about healthy manhood? What is it that you're doing with these players in the first place so you should give a second chance, that this is your response to someone like me who says he should lose his eligibility. What is it that you're going to be doing? I think that's a fair question. Instead of just saying, 'Oh, we want him around positive role models.' Because I think that there are coaches who have created cultures on their teams where these kids come in and they ascribe to the culture that's being set by the coach and the other players. So you don't have that culture then I would expect there to be problems.

FootballScoop: How long have you been traveling the country to speak with football teams? Do you have a tally of how many different programs you've visited?

Tracy: I think it's nearing 70 now. And that's mainly kicked off when I went to meet coach Mike Riley at Nebraska, summer 2016. That would have been my speaking career took off. After that story ran in the media, schools just started calling, coaches started talking to each other. It's all been kind of word of mouth. People find me. I don't I don't solicit myself in any way. I've never asked people to bring me in. They just find me and they ask me come in. I think it is important for schools to be proactive. I mean the fact they seek me out to come into their program, I think, is important because it means that they're being proactive about this issue and they care about this issue, so I appreciate that.

FS: Has this become your full-time job?

Tracy: It is now. I was a registered nurse for about 14 years and I'm so busy doing this work now that this is this is pretty much all I do. I speak, I do legislative work, I'm getting ready to launch a non-profit next month. Yes, this is full time work for me now.

FS: How much progress seen within the college football culture as a whole from 2016 to today?

Tracy: Oh, I think there's still a ton of work to do. But I think what's important is not always to just look out how you can just look at how far we have to go, but how far we come. And we may not have come a long, long way but I think in one way we have because we're having a conversation. We have coaches realizing that they need to set the expectation for their players, they need to have these conversations. They're starting to understand their responsibility in this. And so I think that's really important. I think we have definitely made progress.. There's so much more to be done, but at least we're moving, I think, in the right direction. That's the hope, and hopefully as myself and other people continue to do this work, I would love to see, 10 years down the road, a huge shift and a huge change.

FS: What are some more things that could be done?

Tracy: Well, I think for one thing I think that just setting expectation, one I think that that's important. I think there's not enough coaches having these conversations. There's not enough coaches drawing the line in the sand with their players. And I think that that's important. I think accountability, transparency is important. We can do due diligence in recruiting. How many times have you heard a coach say, 'Oh, I didn't know he had a history. I didn't know this, I didn't know that.' The days of pleading ignorance on things, I think, are gone have. You have to be accountable and transparent. Different policies, procedures that we could do. Bringing in more educators. I think there's I think there's a lot of things that we could be doing.

FS: You recently met with Major Applewhite and Houston. They recently hired two former Baylor assistants in Kendal Briles and Randy Clements. How did that go. Did you speak individually with either of them?

Tracy: The trip to Houston went really well. I did meet Kendal. Kendal approached me after my talk. We had a short, civil, polite conversation. I still don't agree with that hire. I will never agree with that hire. I think it sends the wrong message, but at the same time people have said, 'Why you say why did you go back?' Well I went back because it's the right thing to do. I don't think you just throw away an entire program and not work with the athletes that I have been working with and the staff that I had been working with previously because they made what I think is a bad hire. You keep pushing. It's not going to be the last time that we see a coach who's been embroiled in this type of scandal getting hired somewhere else. So I'll continue to work with the programs that want to work with me and Houston wanted to work with me so I'll continue to do that stuff. I still don't agree with the hire, but that doesn't mean we can't work together. You kind of pick your battles and I chose not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

FS: Of the 70 or so programs that you've worked with, are there any that stand out to you?

Tracy: Oh yeah for sure. I think Coach Shaw at Stanford is the one that stands out the most.

He's really just embraced the Set the Expectation campaign in an incredible way. He brought me in and I spoke with the team. He helped facilitate the pledge signing with me. He's definitely drawn a line in the sand with his players and let them know this is the expectation I have of you. All the new kids coming, in he sits down with them separately. He has them sign the pledge. He does discussions about consent, healthy manhood, bystander. He actually just painted Set the Expectation on the front of the team room, so every day the players come in, they are reminded about the campaign.

He's really knocking the ball out of the park, and I don't think anything he's doing is really complicated. It's really not that complicated. But at the same time, these things that he's doing, he's creating a culture and letting players know, 'If you come to my team, this is what I expect is you. And if you can't meet those expectations, you don't need to be here.' And I think that's really, really important. So there's a lot of good things happening with him and his program. So I would say he's the one that sticks out number one to me right now and I hope that their coaches will follow his lead on what he's doing.

FS: You said in 2017 you believed football was the solution to stopping violence against women. Has that belief strengthened in the past year and a half? Weakened? Stayed the same? How so?

Tracy: I think the idea of the power of sports, that's just deepened for me. I am someone who wants to shift culture and change culture through the vehicle of sports and then men as a solution. And I think that that has only deepened for me. I feel very strongly about it and I think if you look at the Luke Heimlich case from Oregon State, I think it's a perfect example of what we're talking about. We place these athletes in these positions of influence and look at the look at the conversations that people are having now about child sex abuse. I literally have people who are saying, 'It's a mistake. It was an accident. He made a mistake, he shouldn't pay the rest of his life for it.' People aren't even talking about the victim they're saying that the 6-year-old lied. There are so many awful conversations going on right now about this case and this issue. And it's really sad to me because it shouldn't be happening. We should never normalize child sex abuse, ever. These conversations are happening that really are normalizing and minimizing this issue. So for me it's just a perfect example of the power of sports and how these stories drive culture, they drive conversations, the narrative, they influence attitudes and beliefs about who perpetrators and who the victims are. And it's not good. It's not good at all. It's not good for shifting the culture. We should be using sports to end violence and not minimize it.

FS: Can you tell us a little bit about the non-profit you're starting?

Tracy:Set the Expectation started as the campaign, as a pledge. It's now turning into a nonprofit I'll be launching on June 5, so just next month. The aim is going to be looking at focusing more on high school male athletes. I think it's important for us to get to our guys before they get to college, so the non-profit will be focusing on that. I'll be focusing on curriculum for coaches and even doing more speaking at the high school level. We want to put together some summits to get a lot of boys in the room. So as soon as I launch hopefully people will check us out and support what I'm doing because I believe that men are the solution. If women could stop sexual violence, we would have already done it. It's the good men out there that did not commit these crimes that are the solution. They're the ones I want to get to.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.