Activist Brenda Tracy sends a message, one college football game at a time

USF’s honorary team captain for Saturday’s "Set the Expectation” game, Tracy tours campuses to educate students about sexual violence and rape culture.
Brenda Tracy, center, prepares for the coin toss with USF defensive back Devin Studstill (8), left, and offensive tackle Marcus Norman (77).
Brenda Tracy, center, prepares for the coin toss with USF defensive back Devin Studstill (8), left, and offensive tackle Marcus Norman (77). [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Sept. 29, 2019

TAMPA — The USF band had just completed playing the national anthem when Brenda Tracy stood on the Raymond James Stadium sideline, flipping a coin over and over again in preparation for her big moment at midfield.

Tracy, who served as the honorary captain for the Bulls’ game against SMU on Saturday, has flipped the coin before on her journey through America’s college campuses. But usually she’s fine leaving that part of her duties up to the referees.

“It’s so much pressure,” she said, laughing.

More important to her than which team gets possession first is the message Tracy now spends her life delivering to young men, a message she lives every day as a rape survivor.

RELATED: USF embarrassed again at home, this time 48-21 to SMU

In 1998, Tracy was gang raped by four men at a party, two of whom were members of the Oregon State football team. The crime wasn’t prosecuted, and the players involved received a one-game suspension. In the days immediately following, it haunted her. It still does.

“Trauma doesn’t change over time,” Tracy said. “Every time I revisit my trauma, it’s just as hard, every single time. It doesn’t get easier the more I share my story.”

In 2014, Tracy came forward and spoke out for the first time about her experience in an article published by the Oregonian. Two years later, she spoke to her first college football team about sexual violence. It was at the University of Nebraska, then coached by Mike Riley, who was at the helm at Oregon State at the time of her assault.

To date, Tracy has been to more than 90 college campuses, including USF, to share her experience and address students about sexual violence and rape culture. In what she refers to as her call to action, Tracy challenges athletes and coaches to set an expectation that sexual and physical violence won’t be tolerated.

She hopes to eradicate it, one team at a time.

Brenda Tracy, right, receives the coin from the umpires before the game against SMU.
Brenda Tracy, right, receives the coin from the umpires before the game against SMU. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

“I think if women could stop sexual violence we would have already done it,” Tracy said. “For me it’s like, ‘How do you get to men?’ You get to men through sports. This is the perfect platform, the perfect megaphone, to get the word out.”

In August, USF coach Charlie Strong contacted Tracy to invite her to speak to his team during preseason camp. The moment her presentation was over, they put the “Set the Expectation” game on the football schedule.

On Saturday, she walked to midfield for the pregame coin toss flanked by offensive lineman Marcus Norman and defensive back Devin Studstill. In addition to Tracy serving as the honorary captain for the matchup, USF players sported teal and purple ribbons on their helmets, the symbol of her campaign that became an official nonprofit in 2018.

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“I sat front row, right in front of her. That testimony was extremely emotional for her, and it really moved me,” tight end Mitch Wilcox said of her August visit. “I love how her message comes across. She’s calling the 90 percent out to really speak up and hold other people accountable.”

USF athletic director Michael Kelly was also in the room for Tracy’s presentation during camp. For him, creating the “Set the Expectation” game was another way to spread the message beyond their team meeting room.

“It was just so good, in my opinion, to have our students hear that story first hand, to humanize the situation and just realize the impact of it all,” Kelly said. “We’re part of a big enterprise where we’re directly responsible with making sure about 500 student athletes at USF not only get their degrees but prepare themselves as best they can for life beyond that.”

Tracy, mother of two and grandmother to a 19-month-old, calls Portland, Ore., home, but these days she’s hardly there. The former nurse now spends her time traveling the country spreading her message.

In the coming days, Tracy will be involved in “Set the Expectation” games at Rutgers and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

UTSA made headlines this month for creating the Tracy Rule, a policy that would prohibit any athlete with a history of sexual assault or violence from playing sports at the university. It’s a rule Tracy hopes will one day be adopted by the NCAA.

There’s a long way to go, Tracy says, but in the 21 years since she became a rape survivor, people have also come a long way. There are conversations now about sexual violence, she said, and that’s a start.

It’s one Tracy plans to have for the rest of her life.

“We’re at the beginning of a movement,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to do.”