Activist, sexual assault survivor Brenda Tracy speaks to CMU student athletes
For the last two years, Brenda Tracy has spent her life visiting college campuses and athletic departments sharing her story.
Tracy was raped by four Oregon State football players in 1998. Those men continued to play football; two of them were suspended for one game. Sixteen years after she was sexually assaulted she went public to tell her story and try to address rape culture on college campuses.
On Monday, Sept. 10, Tracy visited Central Michigan University to speak with the Chippewa football team. While Tracy’s speeches are often open to the media, the Athletics Department told Central Michigan Life the speech was "private." Tracy was made available for an interview afterward.
Her approach to telling her story, Tracy said is making some people feel uncomfortable.
“These are hard issues and I want to inspire people to action. The only way people want to get active is if they’re stirred in their spirit somehow,” Tracy said. “If I share my story in really graphic detail with you, and kind of gut punch you, (I get you) angry and get you inspired. If I stir emotion in you, the chances of you getting involved are much more.”
The response from the CMU football players this morning was positive, Tracy said, calling the football players “extra engaged.”
In 2014, Tracy spoke to the The Oregonian and told her story, 16 years after it happened. She was unprepared for the response it received.
“I had no idea it would turn out the way that it did,” she said. “I didn’t plan to have a speaking career, to share my story — it all just happened. I’ve been healing in real time in front of the public.”
In the past two years, Tracy has appeared at about 80 colleges.
During her speeches, Tracy focuses on sexual assault, domestic violence, depression and suicide, which are all things she said she struggled with.
Tracy hopes speaking to these coaches and players will create awareness to find a solution to sexual aggression toward women. She discusses the “Red Zone,” the time between the beginning of a school year and November, when the risk of sexual assault on college campuses is high. It happens to coincide with football season.
“We do things at the end of year in April, that’s when sexual assault awareness month is. We need to be doing something in the fall, we need to be catching these kids at the beginning of the year,” she said. We need to use the power of football to raise awareness, to have these conversations, to educate — I wonder what our college campuses would look like if we approached this in a different way?”
Last year, the CMU Society of Professional Journalists coordinated a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) audit. SPJ requested numbers regarding sexual assault and harassment on campus from all schools in the Mid-American Conference. CMU was the only school to outright deny the request. The university did not release numbers, records or other information. The university claimed the personal nature of the documents and their potential to reveal "embarrassing and intimate details" is an invasion of privacy. When asked about requested guidelines and policies, the FOIA response stated “there are no responsive documents."
Every campus in the U.S. has a problem with sexual assault, Tracy said, so universities must address the issue. Institutions should also publicly explain how they handle complaints, counsel survivors and educate students.
“We need more transparency and accountability at all our schools,” she said. “Hiding numbers, not disclosing things, doesn’t help anyone. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t acknowledge it and look at it."
Tracy launched the campaign, “Set the Expectation,” which is geared toward focusing on setting expectations for not just performance of athletes, but also their behavior.
“I think too often we identify that a young man has athletic ability and then we just focus on that, we don’t focus on them as a whole person,” she said. “So we’re not having important conversations with them, we’re just worried about getting them to the next level or the next stage.”
On Sept. 8, Tracy served as honorary captain at the University of Michigan football game after speaking to the football team in August.
After years of being hurt and seeing the football players who raped her being cheered on, Tracy said it was amazing for her to be the one who was being cheered on.
“It’s a full-circle moment," Tracy said. "That’s a moment of healing for me."