Since 2014, when she decided to speak out about being sexually assaulted in 1998 by a group of men that included Oregon State football players, Brenda Tracy has told her story again and again in front of collegiate athletic departments. On Monday, April 23, Tracy spent the day meeting with University of Montana coaches, administrators, President Seth Bodnar and student athletes to speak about her personal experience and her prescriptions for how student athletes can prevent sexual assault.
“I understand that this is a men’s issue, and if we’re going to talk about that 98 percent of all sexual violence is carried out by men, they’re the ones perpetrating these crimes, it’s easy to just say, ‘Well, they’re the problem,’” Tracy says. “And they are, but you can’t talk about them as a problem if you’re not also willing to talk about them as the solution. And I find that approaching men as a solution versus approaching men as a problem is a totally different outcome.”
That outcome is an engaged audience, making students feel called to action rather than lectured. UM Assistant Athletic Director Jean Gee says that approach is what impressed her when she saw Tracy speaking at Big Sky Conference events last year.
“What I love about Brenda’s approach is it’s not about ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Don’t do that,’ it’s about what can we do as student athletes and athletic departments to raise awareness around this issue?” Gee says. “So what can our male student athletes do about being good bystanders…?”
Part of Tracy’s approach is her Set the Expectation program, which asks college and high school athletes to sign a pledge. During basketball season, Big Sky teams dedicated games to the Set the Expectation pledge, wearing shoelaces in the purple and teal colors of the program’s ribbon logo and, on the UM campus, fundraising for UM’s Student Advocacy Resource Center.
Set the Expectation emphasizes consent and bystander intervention. “You may see that your football player friend walked off with a girl and she was drunk but you're not saying anything. There is this culture of silence that is happening,” Tracy says. “They need to say something. They need to hold each other accountable. I mean, how many men knew about Harvey Weinstein? So many of them. They are part of the problem, too. The silence is complicit for sure.”
Gee says that Tracy had been booked to visit campus before Bobby Hauck’s rehiring as head coach was considered. “I thought it was pretty important for her to come to our campus regardless” of who the head coach is, Gee says. Hauck posted a photo of himself and Tracy to his Twitter account after he met her on Monday, thanking her for visiting.
“There’s times where we have situations where decisions are made, wounds are opened, people are hurt, it becomes a divisive issue,” Tracy says when asked about the divided community reaction to Hauck’s rehiring. “We’ve seen it with some of the former Baylor coaches being hired at different places.” She didn’t mince words about her disappointment when the University of Houston hired former Baylor assistant coach Kendal Briles in the wake of a major sexual assault scandal that resulted in Baylor’s head coach (Briles’ father, Art), president and athletic director all being fired or resigning. “There’s nothing that shows me that anyone [from the Baylor coaching staff] deserves that second chance,” she told the Washington Post.
Tracy returned to Houston last month, though, because the Houston program is willing to work with her and hear her criticisms. She says that sometimes, after visiting a school with a troubled history, she’ll get questions about a program’s sincerity. “People ask of me, ‘They’re just using you for PR. How do you feel about that?’” she says. “I say it doesn’t really matter why I’m here. The fact is that I’m here. I’m going to stand in front of a couple hundred athletes tonight and I’m planting seeds and hoping that some of them grow.”
Tracy says Montana strikes her as a program willing to grow. “Some programs are receptive, some programs aren’t. This one is a receptive program.” And if it should disappoint her expectations, expect to hear about it.