If you've heard Brenda Tracy speak before, you know the story she opened with at last week's AFCA Convention. Gang-raped for hours as a 24-year-old in 1998. Going in and out of consciousness. Two of her attackers were Oregon State football players. Tracy says she read then-Beavers coach Mike Riley's comments, saying the players were good guys who made a mistake.
That, Tracy said, stayed with her longer and pained her worse than the actual rape. "I didn't understand why I meant so little that what happened to me was just a bad choice," Tracy said.
The comment followed Tracy for 16 years, boiling into a toxic rage. She began to hate Riley more than her abusers. "I didn't think anything about me," she said before a pin-drop Opryland grand ballroom. "I wanted to die."
Then, 16 years later, Tracy and Riley agreed to meet. Tracy was going to speak to Riley's team at Oregon State, but he left Corvallis for the head job at Nebraska. She followed him there, speaking to the Cornhuskers over the summer. There, Tracy said, she unloaded 18 years of frustration, anger, hurt and frustration on Riley, then told the team her story, with Riley's part included. "He didn't flinch," Tracy said. "I knew in that moment he got it, he understood. And that has meant everything for my recovery."
Tracy now travels the country speaking to college athletes about sexual assault, the horrors it causes and their power and responsibility to prevent it. (In fact, she's back at the Gaylord Opryland speaking to the NCAA Convention as I type this.) She tells players her story, but also a story of hope. "I don't talk about how I think they're the problem, I think they're the solution," Tracy said. "I'm here today because you are the solution to this epidemic.
"If I could go to every college and mobilize a little army of every football team, we would see swift change," she said. "I believe football is the answer."
The answer, Tracy said, starts with installing a written zero-tolerance policy toward violence against women, with each player required to sign a statement of understanding. "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?," she asked.
The market is already moving toward this direction. Bob Stoops, who hosted Tracy in August, admitted as much when video of former Sooners running back Joe Mixon punching a female OU student in 2014 went public in December. "The way things have gone in the past two-and-a-half years, really the only thing that's ever acceptable anymore is dismissal," Stoops said.
Football was the beginning of Tracy's 18-year crisis. She says football can be the end of it, too. "We can change the culture of the entire nation, just in this room," Tracy concluded. "I think we can do it within football. It's an epidemic, and we can stop it."