Brenda Tracy still struggles to fight back tears when she recalls the events of that night.
It has been more than 21 years since, at 24 years old, Tracy was gang raped by four men — three of whom were NCAA Division I college football players. Even now, after hundreds of speaking engagements, forming a nonprofit organization and helping write laws to help rape and sexual assault victims, the emotions come flooding back each time she re-tells her story.
“The thing I need you to know is,” Tracy told a packed Albert Taylor Hall at Emporia State University Thursday night, “this trauma doesn’t go away. It’s still right here.
“I can’t take you back into that apartment without feeling that intense sense of shame and disgust.”
Since coming forward to a reporter at the Oregonian with her story five years ago, the Portland, Oregon, single mother of two adult sons has spent her time traveling the country, speaking to groups large and small — but especially to collegiate athletes. Every student-athlete at ESU was among the crowd Thursday, and each learned how they can do their part to help end the rape culture on college campuses.
“Like a piece
Tracy had already lived a tough life before that night that forever changed her life. She grew up in a home with alcoholic parents and was sexually abused as a child — by a family member between the ages of 2 and 5, and again by her babysitter’s boyfriend. She was 18 and a senior in high school when she got pregnant with her first son. Soon after graduating, she married the baby’s father and had another son. But the marriage was short-lived.
Her husband was routinely abusive and, after a couple years, she got the courage to leave.
About a year later, now a 24-year-old single mother of two, she was dating a member of the Oregon State University football team. One night her best friend — who was dating one of her boyfriend’s teammates — invited Tracy to come and hang out with her boyfriend and some of his friends.
Although Tracy didn’t drink, the men at the gathering were eventually able to pressure her into having one. A short time later she was beginning to feel sick and recalls seeing her friend go to a bedroom with her boyfriend, leaving Tracy alone in the living room with the other four men in the apartment that night.
She laid her head back on the couch and passed out.
“When I came to, I was lying on my back on the floor, naked,” Tracy said. “I couldn’t move my arms or my legs.”
One of the men was actively raping her while the other three were trying to make her commit other sex acts. She said she remembers them laughing, cheering each other on and high-fiving as they took turns raping her.
After passing out again, she woke up a second time during which one of the men was cradling her in his arms while the others were pouring hard alcohol down her throat. She lost consciousness again.
The next thing she remembers, she was able to tell her abusers that she needed to throw up. One of them carried her to the bathroom, put her head in the sink and continued to rape her from behind as she vomited into the sink.
“In all, my attack lasted for more than six hours,” Tracy said.
The next morning, she woke up naked on the living room floor. She had crumpled up chips and dirt all over her, gum in her hair and a used condom stuck to her stomach.
“I just remember feeling like a piece of trash,” she told the crowd. “Like I was just another piece of garbage they just tossed on the floor when they were done with me. I might as well have been a red Solo cup.”
She said she immediately began to blame herself. She scolded herself for having a drink and wondered if she may have flirted with one of the men at some point during the evening.
“Not once when I left that apartment did I think that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Tracy said.
Tracy eventually had her mother drive her to the hospital the day after her attack. On the way there, she saw her mother crying and continued to blame herself for making her mother feel that way.
She said it was during that drive when she first entertained thoughts of suicide.
“In that moment I thought, ‘I am a failure, just like everyone told me I was going to be. I’m a single mom on welfare,’” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Why am I even here?’”
She eventually decided that, after she got released from the hospital, she was going to kill herself.
The crisis nurse who examined her, Jenny, proved to be a pivotal player in her life. She was kind and compassionate. Tracy decided during the appointment, for the first time, that she wanted to be a nurse, and that she had to raise her sons.
“Jenny didn’t know I was suicidal, but she saved my life,” Tracy said. “Because we don’t know what other people are going through, we don’t know the impact even a small, nice gesture can have on their life.”
Tracy decided to go to the police. All four of her abusers were arrested, and she thought there would be a trial, they would be found guilty and justice would be served.
It wasn’t that simple.
Because three of the men were high-profile athletes, her rape became the top news story in the region. She said the community turned on her, even though most didn’t know her identity, wondering “why she was making this up to ruin their lives.” She and her young sons received death threats. Her boyfriend turned on her; so did her friend who was with her that evening.
“I lost everybody,” she said.
When she met with the district attorney, he told her she didn’t have a strong case — that it was “he said, she said,” and that convictions would be difficult. Not wanting to go through her ordeal at possibly four trials along with having her rape kit become public record on a long shot, she dropped the charges. This, in the eyes of those who did not believe her, was just further proof that she had made the whole thing up.
She later went to the school and spoke with crisis services in hopes she might get some justice there. However, then-OSU Football Coach Mike Riley chose to suspend the players for only one game, telling the media that “they are really good guys who just made a bad choice,” according to Tracy.
“The thing about my attackers being football players is, for the next four years, every Saturday I had to hear tens of thousands of people cheer for my rapists,” she said.
Act of desperation
Tracy went back to school and became a registered nurse. She made good money, her sons had nice things and in the public eye it appeared her life was going well.
But, after 16 years and now at 40 years old, she was still privately struggling. She battled depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and a borderline eating disorder. And she was still suicidal. She said she woke up every morning not wanting to be alive anymore.
She believes her own anguish caused her to fall short of what she could have been as a mother.
“I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I resented my sons,” Tracy said. “I resented them because they were the reason I had to be alive when I didn’t want to be.
“People ask me if I hate the four men who did this to me. I do hate them. But I don’t hate them for what they did to me in that apartment. I hate them for the years they stole from me and my sons.”
Finally, she said as an act of desperation to get out of the “torturous” feeling of not wanting to be in her own body — of not wanting to go on living — she reached out to John Canzano, a reporter at the Oregonian.
“Through all of it, I had always been ‘Jane Doe,’” Tracy said. “I thought maybe if I put my name and my face on my story, maybe the day after the story comes out I’ll wake up and I won’t want to die.”
This time, the community rallied around her. The president of OSU issued a formal apology to her in the media, while both the school and the Oregonian launched an investigation.
They found that, at the time of the incident, the athletics program at OSU was $1 million in debt. The district attorney, the president of the university and the chief of police had regular meetings about what was going on. As it turned out, they all played a role in burying her accusations.
She said police records showed the DA had taped confessions from all four of her attackers. The police had thrown away her rape kit — a key piece of evidence — long before it was no longer viable, and the university president had told crisis services not to pursue anything regarding her case.
“My children almost grew up without a father or a mother because of football,” Tracy said. “I don’t know how I feel about that. Because it worked. A year later the athletics department got a $5 million donation from the Reser family and they were able to renovate the stadium.
“People say you can’t put a price on a life. I know the price on my life. It’s $5 million.”
Working for change
In 2016 — two years after her story was printed — Tracy accepted an invitation from Riley — a man whom she said she hated even more than her attackers and who was now the head coach at the University of Nebraska — to speak to his football team. She said prior to talking to the team, she met with Riley for the first time, having been haunted by his words about her rapists making “a bad choice” for nearly two decades. She told him she hated him.
“He did something really beautiful,” she said. “He apologized and he held himself accountable.”
Later, she said he stood by and again held himself accountable in front of his team. She said he understood that just by being complicit in her lack of justice, he had done wrong.
“I can’t rationalize good people who don’t do the right thing,” Tracy said. “If you choose to do nothing, you still chose to do something.”
She then explained to the student-athletes how they can hold each other accountable and not be complicit, one of the main focuses of her organization, Set the Expectation. She said part of the reason she focuses on speaking to student-athletes — often men — is because she is aware of the power and influence they have among their peers and in their communities.
“Men, I’m not here because I think you’re the problem,” she said. “I’m here because I know you’re the solution. If women alone could have stopped sexual violence, it would have happened by now.
“I honestly believe that if we could get 90 percent of male college athletes to take a stand, we could make a huge impact.”
In 2017, Tracy began Set the Expectation. The program asks student-athletes — regardless of gender — to sign a pledge stating they will be a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem. It helps show their peers and younger generations of athletes that their behavior does matter, and may even impact their eligibility.
The program also asks people to wear the teal and purple ribbon to raise awareness, to give back to programs in their communities — such as SOS, Inc. — which help and advocate for victims of sexual violence, that they educate themselves on how to be a part of the solution and to use the hashtag “#SettheExpectation” on social media to publicly declare their support.
In closing, Tracy had a message for both the men in the room as well as the survivors of sexual violence.
While acknowledging that not all perpetrators are men, she urged the male athletes in the room to respect all women like they do their own mothers, sisters and aunts.
“If there are any survivors in the room, the one thing I want to say is that it’s not your fault,” Tracy said. “There is nothing that you did wrong. It is never the victim’s fault. Rape should never be a consequence of anything.”