Brenda Tracy stood in front of Nebraska coach Mike Riley’s football team Wednesday afternoon and told them the story of that night nearly 18 years ago when she was gang-raped by four men — two of whom played for Riley’s Oregon State team in 1998.
And then Tracy told his current players there was a time she absolutely despised Riley.
“I told them, ‘At one point I hated this man more than my rapists,’ ” Tracy told a small group of reporters Wednesday evening.
“You could literally see the whole room turn and look at Coach Riley. … It was intense. I saw them all look. I could feel it. Not too long after that, I started talking about the idea that he didn’t have to bring me here. Even under those circumstances, he didn’t have to bring me here. This is what accountability looks like. This is what transparency looks like. This is how we get things done, and (they) should be appreciative that they have a coach like this as their mentor, their example of how to deal with something like this.
“We talked about how it’s OK to say sorry. It’s OK to be accountable. It’s OK to stand up and say, ‘I didn’t do something right,’ or ‘I did something wrong,’ and move on from there. Sometimes when you wrong another person, all they really want is an apology.”
Tracy, a nurse who graduated from Oregon Health & Science University, spoke with the Nebraska team for about an hour, a meeting that followed her private meeting with Riley — their first face-to-face encounter — and athletics director Shawn Eichorst. Tracy and Riley had corresponded previously in the aftermath of a bombshell November 2014 story published in The Oregonian, Tracy’s first public and quite graphic comments since the 1998 sexual assault.
Eichorst said he had had conversations with Riley when he hired the coach two years ago and was supportive of the idea to bring Tracy on campus.
Tracy described what it was like to see the coach who had reacted to the incident by suspending his two players one game apiece, saying that they had made “a bad choice.” She had been nervous about Wednesday’s meeting, she said, closing her eyes and lying in bed last night but barely sleeping.
“Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened,” Tracy said Wednesday night after both meetings. “I feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted off my back. Literally I feel like I might be five sizes smaller in my skin.”
She grew emotional and described seeing Riley for the first time. He greeted her with a, “Hi Brenda,” and gave her a smile. She started to cry and cried onto his shoulder as he embraced her.
Riley and Tracy spoke for more than an hour, and she asked him all the questions she’d wanted answers to over the past 18 years, including this: What did he know when he decided proper punishment was a one-game suspension?
Riley told her he knew that his players had been arrested, released and that the charges had been dropped. He felt he had to implement some sort of punishment, which resulted in the suspension. He said he didn’t read the police report and did not know details beyond what the arrests were for.
Tracy said she believes Riley.
“If he had known, he hoped he would have done something differently,” Tracy said. “He thinks about it. What happened to me has had an impact on him. … It’s not a feeling of relief but a little bit of closure.”
Said Riley in a statement released Wednesday night: “As part of our ongoing educational efforts, I invited Brenda Tracy to Lincoln, to share her experiences with the young men in our program. Brenda has suffered immeasurable pain and has shown the strength and willingness to share her story. Her story today was powerful and I know that it left an indelible imprint on our student-athletes, staff and myself.”
Riley also expressed “sincere gratitude” for Tracy’s willingness to come to campus and meet with him.
“This has been an important day for me and for our football program and we must keep the focus on the victims, and on preventing inexcusable acts in the future,” Riley said.
Tracy said her meeting with Riley’s players was rewarding, with players asking her questions and suggesting ways Nebraska can raise awareness about sexual violence. She also spoke to them about consent and how, unfortunately, many sexual assault victims blame themselves for the violent crimes that happened to them.
When Tracy described her rape, she made sure to be extremely graphic. She said she needs listeners “to be uncomfortable” because if they’re not uncomfortable, things won’t change.
Tracy said she believes every college football team in the country should have a rape survivor come speak to them for that exact reason.
“I’m very specifically proud of Oregon State University for hiring me as a consultant and all the work they’ve done,” Tracy said. “I’m also very proud of Coach Riley and this football team. Meeting with these players and meeting with the AD and Coach Riley, I feel like they have a really good synergy. They could really do something here. They could really set a good example in a really dark time right now in college football.”