Photo by Ashley Coker / Staff Writer
Sexual assault survivor and activist Brenda Tracy encouraged MTSU student athletes to join the fight against sexual violence Wednesday night.
Tracy, who was drugged and raped by four men at a house party in 1998, recounted her story three times: once to male athletes, once to female athletes and once to the general public. In each session, students sat silently as Tracy detailed the six hour attack.
At the time of her assault, both Tracy and her best friend were dating Oregon State University football players, so they often spent time near the campus even though they were not students themselves. One night, Tracy’s best friend invited her to hang out with her boyfriend and four other male friends.
Tracy said she rarely drank, but on this particular night, her friends encouraged her to “let loose and relax.” She agreed, and one of the men brought her a drink. Less than half an hour later, she felt the room spinning around her and began to lose consciousness. Right before she passed out, Tracy saw her friend and her friend’s boyfriend go into a bedroom, leaving her alone in the living room with the other men.
She woke up to find three of the men violating her while the fourth man watched. She floated in and out of consciousness as the men continued to assault her with various objects and poured alcohol down her throat. At one point, she told the men she was going to vomit. She recalled one of them picking her up and carrying her to the bathroom, where he pushed her head in the sink and continued to assault her as she vomited.
The assault continued for several hours after that.
“At one point in the early morning hours, they started complaining that I was too dry and swollen to be penetrated anymore. One of them came up with the idea to put ice on my vagina to try and take the swelling down. When that didn’t work, they finally decided to leave,” Tracy said.
She woke up the next morning lying face-down on the living room floor, still naked, with a used condom pressed to her stomach, dried vomit in her hair and food crumbs pushed into her skin.
“I remember feeling like I was a piece of garbage someone had just left on the floor,” Tracy said. “It was the most disgusting moment of my life.”
Later that day, her mother took her to the hospital for a rape kit, which she described as “by far the most humiliating medical exam a person can endure.” She immediately filed a police report, and all four of the men involved were arrested the next day.
That is when the backlash began.
“Because two of my rapists were Oregon State football players, my story was on the front page of all the newspapers. It ran on all the TV and radio stations. Everyone was trying to figure out if I was telling the truth,” Tracy said. “When you accuse people like that of rape, not only are you a victim, but all of a sudden, you also become a villain.”
Tracy, already exhausted by the negative response her story was getting, decided not to press charges against her attackers when the district attorney assigned to her case told her she would have to go through four separate trials with little chance of winning.
Instead, she went to Oregon State administrators. She was assured that her attackers would be “taken care of” and “everything would be handled.”
The only thing she ever saw about her case after that was a newspaper article describing her assailants’ one-game suspension. Former Oregon State Head Coach Mike Riley was quoted in the article saying the men were “good guys who made a bad decision,” but were “handing the one-game suspension really well.”
Those words haunted Tracy.
“I didn’t understand how gang-rape was a ‘bad decision,’” she said. “Was it a bad decision when his players raped me or when they watched the other men rape me?”
Still, Tracy assumed the school was doing more about her case behind-the-scenes. A few months later, she moved away to attend nursing school and never followed up. Then, in 2014 her therapist suggested she seek closure by finding out how, specifically, her attackers had been punished.
Fourteen years later, Tracy called Oregon State and asked about her case. After being dismissed by the school without answers, she went looking for them herself. Riley was the only person she knew would have them.
Tracy searched Riley’s name on the internet and found a news article about him by The Oregonian. She reached out to the reporter who wrote the story and asked him how to get in touch with Riley. He not only agreed to connect her with Riley, but he also offered to tell her story, if she was interested.
While she was working with the reporter, Tracy found out that her attackers were issued 25 hours of community service by Oregon State and a one-game suspension by Riley in 1998. That was the entirety of their punishment.
During the summer of 2014, her story went public for the second time. This time, her name was attached to it, and the response was largely positive. Soon after the article ran, Oregon State issued a formal apology for the way they handled her case and Riley, who now coaches football at the University of Nebraska, apologized for his past comments and invited her to speak to his team.
Tracy now travels the country advocating for sexual assault prevention. Most of the time, her sessions target male athletes.
“People think I talk to male athletes because I hate men and athletics. That isn’t true. I love men, and I love sports,” she said. “I don’t think men are the problem; I think they are the solution. Women have been fighting for sexual assault prevention for decades. If we could fix the problem without men, we would have already.”
Tracy went on to explain that while 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by men, only 10 percent of men commit sexual assault. That means the large majority of men are not rapists. She proposed that getting the good guys actively involved in sexual assault prevention would make the bad guys think twice.
She encouraged the men who fall within the 90 percent to start a conversation about sexual violence on campus and to intervene if they see their teammates initiating any kind of unwanted sexual interaction.
“As male athletes, you have enormous influence. People look up to you whether you like it or not,” she said. “If you say something when you see something, I promise you will stop a sexual assault on this campus.”
MTSU Director of Athletics Chris Massaro said the athletics department was interested in bringing Tracy to speak to students after hearing about her speech in Nebraska.
“First, I want the students, both girls and guys, to know that they shouldn’t be embarrassed to reach out for help if they are victims. Second, I want to appeal to the 90 percent of good guys she was talking about,” Massaro said. “If this kind of awareness could stop even one sexual assault, it would be worth it.”
Several students approached Tracy after her speech to thank her for her time or to get a photo with her.
“Coming in, I didn’t really want to here because I feel like, as athletes, we hear about sexual assault all the time, but it really made me think. It was a lot more intense than I expected,” sophomore golf player Connor Slane said about the presentation.
The event was sponsored by MTSU, June Anderson Center for Women and Nontraditional Students, Center for Student Involvement and Leadership, MTSU Athletics, Institutional Equity and Compliance, Distinguished Lecture Fund and Sigma Pi Fraternity.