The Oregon Woman: Changing the Game

How Brenda Tracy Combats Rape Culture in College Sports

After enduring a violent sexual assault 20 years ago, the Portlander now travels the country, speaking to athletes and advocating for change.

By Jason Cohen April 24, 2018 Published in the May 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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You may think you know the most powerful Oregonians in college sports. You may think of the highly paid coaches, the 20-year-old future NFL draft picks, Phil Knight. But you may not know Brenda Tracy, the Portlander working to change sports more profoundly than any of them.

The 44-year-old has made pushing against the rape culture that can thrive in locker rooms and athlete dorms her life’s work. And—Twitter trolls aside—she’s actually getting through.

Tracy went public with the story of her own rape well before the #MeToo era. In Corvallis in 1998, Tracy was sexually assaulted by four men, two of whom were Oregon State football players. The incident was never prosecuted. Then-coach Mike Riley punished the assailants with a one-game suspension. Tracy didn’t publicly identify herself as the victim until 2014, when she detailed her story to John Canzano of the Oregonian.

“Somebody has to be out there talking about survivors,” Tracy says. “That’s my job: to make sure you don’t forget about us.” In Canzano's story, Riley wondered if he could somehow make things right with Tracy—or even if she might speak directly to his team. In June 2016, by which time Riley had departed for the University of Nebraska, Tracy did just that. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team more attentive throughout a talk,” recalls Riley (now back with OSU as assistant head coach). “It wasn’t in an accusing fashion at all. It was educational, in a very blunt way. There is a lot of bravery and courage involved in stepping out like that.”

That experience quickly became Tracy's purpose. She put aside her job as a registered nurse (she also has an MBA) to speak to men’s and women’s teams at more than 60 colleges, including OSU, Portland State, Oregon, and Penn State.

Since 2014, she’s also had a hand in lobbying Oregon state legislators to pass seven laws, including one that extended the criminal statute of limitations for rape from six to 12 years, and indefinitely in the event of new evidence. She serves on the NCAA’s commission to combat sexual violence and has US Sen. Ron Wyden’s ear on Title IX issues. Her petition demanding Twitter shut down accounts that tweet rape threats at women has more than 600,000 signatures. She has a book in the works, and doesn’t rule out running for office one day.

Tracy is a polished, warm, and funny speaker, putting audiences at ease despite the relentlessness of her story. She doesn’t shy away from details—the dried vomit in her hair, peeling a used condom off her stomach, feeling suicidal for years—even though reliving those horrific seven hours puts her in an almost daily state of PTSD, she says.

“Every time I stand on a stage and speak I have to go right back into that apartment. And that’s hard, but it’s also necessary,” she says. “If I tell you the details of that night, then it becomes more real for you. You’re not able to minimize it.”

Today, Tracy’s main focus is a campaign called Set the Expectation, which asks coaches and athletes to take a pledge against sexual violence. Last fall, Stanford and Arizona State hosted Tracy for a nationally televised “Set the Expectation” game, with both schools wearing teal and purple ribbons, symbols for awareness of sexual violence; more teams have since followed suit.

When Tracy speaks, she tells athletes they’re the solution, not the problem. "This is a men’s issue,” says Tracy, who has two adult sons. “If women could stop this, we would’ve already done it.” She urges men to hold each other accountable. "The locker-room talk, the words we use, how does that contribute to this culture of violence? What about when we’re silent? Isn’t saying nothing actually saying something?”

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