It’s a compelling story; an Oregon woman who was gang-raped by Oregon State football players 20 years ago and has made it her life mission to stop sexual violence, especially by members of sports teams.
Ever since the Oregonian first reported Brenda Tracy’s story four years ago, she’s founded a non-profit: Set the Expectation, conducted a crusade for victim protection laws and worked to extend statutes of limitations for rape.
How is she managing to do this? Where is she getting the strength to carry on? And, yes, is there a religion angle here? Let’s look.
Tracy has no memorized speech, no notes or litany of statistics about sexual violence in America. She hits her audience with something different: sheer honesty, a graphic and unflinching description of that night.
“The next time I came into consciousness, one of the men was cradling me in his arm and he was pouring a bottle of hard alcohol down my throat and I was choking and gagging on it,” she says. “And I passed out again.” …
Tracy estimates she was conscious for only a small fraction of an ordeal that lasted six hours. Her fragmented memories include pleading with the men at some point, telling them she felt nauseated.
“So one of them picked me up kind of like a rag doll and carried me to the bathroom,” she says. “He laid me over the counter and he shoved my head into the bathroom sink and, as I was vomiting on myself in the sink, he was raping me from behind.”
The next morning, she woke on the floor, still naked, with food crumbs and bits of potato chips pressed into her skin. Gum was stuck in her hair.
“I mostly just remember, in that moment, feeling like a piece of trash. I was a piece of trash they had forgotten on the living-room floor,” she says. “I didn’t even feel like a human.”
Later, there is this:
Oregon State conducted a separate investigation, but when the next season came around, the two football players inside the apartment received suspensions of only one game each.
Coach Mike Riley told the media that his players were good young men who made “a bad choice.”
This is a story about redemption, so be sure to read it all. Tracy managed to climb out of this pit and go to work helping others.
As I looked further into this story, I found two absent religious narratives — crucial themes in a story that members of the GetReligion team have always called religion “ghosts.”
Neither of these narratives made the pages of the Times. The first concerns the victim. In an ESPN story about Tracy, this angle is definitely brought out.
As she does so often these days during a down moment, Tracy turned to her faith for guidance. Tracy believes God knew she was strong enough to survive the pain of the 16 years between the 1998 rape and the healing that began with Canzano's 2014 story. "In 2010, I asked God to use me and my family as an example to the world that, with God, all things are possible. Now, since 2014, I think that's what's happening," she says. "I don't think you can explain my trajectory without putting God in there."
I found another story in the Billings (Montana) Gazette that ran last October by a reporter who was the sports editor for the local (Corvallis, Ore.) paper when Tracy was first raped. He apologized to the woman for not aggressively following up on her story when the incident first occurred, then wrote:
Tracy went on to invoke her faith, and how it guides her perspective on a horrific experience. She said while she doesn’t believe her God made it happen, he allowed it to happen with the intent that bad could be turned to good.
“So, I can honestly tell you as I sit here today, if I could go back and change it I wouldn’t,” she said. “I know this is what I’m meant to do with my life and I know that pain was necessary. And look what is happening today.”
The other angle involves the coach who let off the offending players back in 1998 with the “bad choice” wording. Back to the ESPN piece:
In Canzano's 2014 story, Riley had floated the idea of inviting Tracy to meet with his football team. When he officially extended an invitation for her to visit Nebraska, where he was the head coach, in 2016, Tracy was terrified. She had hated him for so long. Did she really want to face him? No, but she didn't want to not face him, either, so she scrounged up the courage to fly to Nebraska in June 2016.
Riley was standing outside his office when she arrived. "Hi, Brenda," he said, as if she were a long-lost friend. She started crying immediately. They hugged, and she cried on his shoulder. In his office, they spoke for more than an hour. His comments in 1998 had made her think she didn't matter. His behavior now, face to face as she unloaded on him, showed he believed she did matter. She planned to forgive him regardless of what he said, and his repentance and regret for the pain he had caused her made it easier. She tweeted a picture of the two of them, smiling arm in arm, with, "This is what accountability looks like."
“Repentance” is not a word one ordinarily finds in a sports story. It’s absolutely crucial here.
Looking around, I found another Oregonian story; this one about Riley’s Christian faith. Any possibility the latter informed his response to Tracy? I’m sure it did, but that angle was missed in the Los Angeles Times piece.
People don’t always wear their faith on their sleeves and other journalists, like the reporter for the Boston radio station WBUR missed the religion angle in their recent story about Tracy. But this doesn’t have to be.
If you’re reporting on someone who’s been through a lot of suffering, ask them what helped them through it. For some, it’s yoga, meditation or the outdoors. For others, it’s some form of religious faith. It’s a question worth asking. And if a coach like Riley goes the extra mile in apologizing to someone he wronged years ago, do something more than note how many coaches would have just blown this woman off. Ask why he did what he did.
Chances are you’ll find it has to do with God or faith or religion of some type. The answers are there if you choose to look.