BOZEMAN — Brenda Tracy has shared her wrenching story and message about sexual assault and rape with athletic departments from coast to coast, but #SetTheExpectation day Saturday at Bobcat Stadium had heightened significance.
Two days earlier, Christine Blasey Ford told her own story in front of the entire country during a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who she accuses of assaulting her when both were in high school in 1982. Ford's testimony brought powerful emotions to the fore for Tracy and "survivors" everywhere.
“Today is even more important than before for me,” said Tracy, who wore a black T-shirt with teal #SetTheExpectation lettering as she met briefly with a small group of reporters moments after leading the Bobcat Prowl with Montana State football players ahead of their game against fifth-ranked Eastern Washington.
“We see all this stuff going on in Washington and there are so many survivors across the country feeling … the word we use is ‘triggered’. So many things are stirred up for survivors across the country right now and a lot are feeling depressed. Honoring survivors in a positive way and saying it’s OK to be a survivor, I think that’s incredible.
“I think it’s extremely important in light of what’s going on in the country and I’m really proud of (today) and really proud of the young men out there.”
Saturday was the second time in six weeks she has met with the Bobcats. In August, she described in riveting detail a 1998 assault by four men -- including two Oregon State football players -- and issued a “call to action”.
“The response from them was overwhelmingly positive and a lot of guys said, ‘What could we do?’ " Tracy said. "So they’re holding a #SetTheExpectation” football game.”
Tracy, now 44, never imagined her world would become a steady stream of visits to college campuses from Michigan to Montana.
Like many survivors, she had buried the incident – gang rape, sodomy and robbery – internally for 16 years. Despite what the police described as "all kinds of evidence", including interviews in which the four assailants pointed fingers at each other, Tracy ultimately declined to press charges, later explaining that she “couldn’t deal with it.”
The players were suspended for one game.
Tracy contemplated how to commit suicide.
Starting a relationship with the nurse who administered the rape-kit exam steered her away from suicide and set her on a course to pursue a career in nursing. A conversation with Oregonian newspaper columnist John Canzano in 2014 put her on the path she’s traveling today.
Canzano's story led to a connection between Tracy and Mike Riley, the football coach at Oregon State in 1998 and a man she initially despised for his perceived inattentiveness and especially for describing his players as having made "a bad choice". Riley’s own self-reflection after talking with Canzano led him to invite her to speak to his team, by then at Nebraska.
Tracy has been on her #SetTheExpectation tour ever since.
“That all kind of happened by accident,” she said. “I didn’t intend to start any of this really. The reporter said, ‘You have a story to tell and I’ll write it’. At first I said, ‘Why? Nobody cared then, why would they care now?’ Everything that has happened since has been kind of organic. I never intended for this to be my career. It’s just sort of happened.”
Tracy, who participated in a symposium at the University of Montana in April, said the reception she receives always is overwhelmingly supportive. At each stop, she said, she initially senses tension from football players as she opens up about her rape.
Their faces, she said, range from looks of disbelief that she would be so vivid to players hiding half their faces in their T-shirts.
“Then I get to the part where I’m done with my story, and I see they’re kind of tense because they feel like, ‘Oh my god, she’s going to drop the hammer on us and we’re guys and we feel bad about what happened to her," she said. "But at that point I say to them, ‘I’m not here because you’re the problem, I’m here because you’re the solution’, and then you can literally see them exhale and drop their shoulders and they lean in and wonder what is she going to say now?
“That’s a beautiful moment for me because I know they’re listening and I know they’re paying attention. After that, I share my call to action, and that’s where they say, ‘What can we do?’ It’s a lot of emotions in an hour.”
As anyone who follows her Twitter feed knows, she is also the target of vitriol and threats – most recently from fans at Ohio State, where she weighed in on coach Urban Meyer’s controversial handling of an assistant coach accused (and eventually fired) of domestic abuse. This was shortly after meeting with the school's football and basketball players.
“Having a voice comes with consequences,” she said. “Some of that’s threats, bullying and name-calling. But that pales in comparison to things that are happening in football programs I’m working with.
“You can call me everything in the book, but that’s not going to bother me because I’m at Montana State today with the whole football team on that field that’s honoring survivors. It’s young men stepping up and saying, ‘We want to be part of the solution’, and that means everything for me.”