In 1998 Brenda Tracy was allegedly gang raped by 3 football players, two of them being from Oregon State University. After charges were dropped because she was frightened of proceeding, Mike Riley the head football coach claimed that the football players made “a bad choice.” This is the amazing story of a courageous woman who pursued a situation for 16 years and finally got some peace and healing in a meeting with now Nebraska football coach Mike Riley. This article explains what the evangelical Christian church can learn from that meeting between Brenda Tracy and Mike Riley.
“I plan to tell them exactly what I remember about that night and tell them exactly how much I struggled,” she said, “because I am not the exception; I am the rule. This is what happens to survivors of this horrible crime. We struggle. We have PTSD. We have depression. We want to die. We want to kill ourselves. I really want them to understand what this is. It’s a big deal. It ruins people’s lives.”
Brenda Tracy to ESPN
“Brenda has suffered immeasurable pain and has shown the strength and willingness to share her story. Her story today was powerful.”
University of Nebraska Football Coach Mike Riley in a statement
If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.
Romans 12:18 NKJV
In 1998, Brenda Tracy was a single mother working as a waitress in a Salem, Oregon restaurant. She was 24 and responsible for two young boys. In June she was invited to a party being hosted in the apartment of a defensive back for Oregon State University (OSU). Several other people would be there including an OSU running back, a high school athlete being recruited to play for OSU, and a community college player on probation for armed robbery in California. At the party she was given a lot of gin and orange juice, and she eventually became unconscious. She later woke up allegedly to find one of Oregon State’s recruits sexually assaulting her and being cheered on in the process by the others in the room. As Brenda was allegedly raped she was forced fed alcohol and sexually violated in the process. Two other men allegedly took turns in raping her. This assault lasted for more than six hours. Brenda described the event in the following manner. “The attack lasted more than six hours and as I went in and out of consciousness the things that they did to me are now burned into my memory,” she later wrote. “Like a piece of cattle I was branded, never to forget eight hands on me, inside me, their laughs as they high-fived each other in a congratulatory manner as they each took turns raping me. … Never to forget the next morning when I awoke to the smell of dried vomit in my hair, the stickiness of a condom stuck to my stomach, the food crumbs that left indentations on my skin as I lay face down on the apartment floor like a piece of garbage that someone forgot to pick up.”
Brenda’s friend found her naked on the floor after the sexual assault. On the 45 minute drive back to her apartment she cried the entire way. She then told police what happened. After calling her mother she was later found curled into a ball on the couch sobbing in pain. Brenda had planned to kill herself as she was overwhelmed with guilt and felt violated by what had occurred. In a hospital room a nurse, Jenenne Stanley, who performed a rape exam convinced her otherwise and that she had a purpose and reason to live. The medical evidence pointed to rape and with that two football players from Oregon State’s football team were arrested along with a recruit and a community college player. Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge who played for OSU were charged with sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, and sex abuse. Michael Ainsworth and Nakia Ware who played for a community college faced the same charges plus one count of rape. There were differing takes by the men involved as to who did what as the legal system started to advance in this situation. The head football coach Mike Riley decided to suspend his two football players for one game. For a sexual assault one game suspension was deemed punishment enough.
In the community of Salem things changed quickly for Brenda and she became a marked individual. Football was deeply popular and the Beavers had a following. Brenda was receiving death threats and backlash. She was afraid of the looming trial and refused to cooperate with the prosecutors. Brenda later described the situation in the following manner. “Two weeks after reporting the attack and enduring a severe backlash and death threats from a community that should have helped me and protected me — I dropped the charges.” As charges were dropped against Calvin Carlyle and Jason Dandridge head football coach decided to suspend them for a game anyhow but in front of reporters he still defended the football players who raped Brenda. Mike Riley described them as “good guys who made a really bad choice.”
“I hated him with every cell in his body.”
Branda made a decision to become a nurse, as she was inspired by Jenenne Stanley. In September of 1998, Tracy was enrolled in Portland Community College where she earned an associate degree in nursing. She later obtained a bachelor of science degree in nursing form Oregon Health & Science University. That was followed by an MBA, and today Brenda works as the coordinator of an acute mobile dialysis team. As impressive as that all is Brenda still struggled with the rape that allegedly happened to her. The words that Mike Riley said, “a bad choice” angered her immensely. After all what is a bad choice? A bad choice is eating candy when you are trying to lose weight. Or a bad choice is staying up and watching television when you know you need to get to bed early for a business meeting in the morning. Those words “a bad choice” drove Brenda, and ate at her.
Finally she decided to come forward in her name and re-tell what happened to her. She emailed John Canzano, a reporter for the Portland Oregonian and interviewed and told the entire experience. On November 14, 2014 the newspaper published the story, “Canzano: 16 years after Oregon State football gang-rape allegation, Brenda Tracy steps from the shadows.” More was learned especially the fact that Brenda had dealt with abuse earlier in her life, and was betrayed repeatedly. In the story John Canzano approached Oregon State football coach about his role and what he had said. Mike Riley actually reached out to John Canzano and when he discussed the situation the football coached shared he was out of town on vacation when the charges against two of his players were dropped. He stated the following in an Oregonian interview.
“What I hope I’ve learned through the years is ‘What are we really doing here?’ There are deals, you have to look at it case by case, and gather information. I don’t necessarily think you have to wait for the courts to say ‘guilty’ when you’re talking about guns, when you are talking about abuse of women, when you’re talking about assault, DUI, drugs, and you usually know enough to know these guys have disrespected the program. I’m in the business of helping these guys grow, but some guys refuse that and you have to cut them loose. Some guys you have to suspend, see how they do from there…. It’s a hard world to be in. You’re judge and jury. But if there were a baby sitter accused of molesting kids would you continue to let them babysit your kids while a jury decides?”
Mike Riley then had an idea…what if he reached out to Brenda and let her speak to the Oregon State football team? “I always try to research the right people to talk to our team and do it throughout the year,” Riley said. “That would be a compelling talk. A real-life talk. Instead of just talking about rape and sexual assault, actually having someone talk about how things can change for everyone in a moment like that.” Brenda who still struggled with hatred to the coach warmed to the idea and said if the offer came through she would take him up on it. In December of 2014 Mike Riley accepted an offer to become the head football coach at one of the most impressive programs in the land – the University of Nebraska. In a statement released by Nebraska Mike Riley said the following. “It is truly an honor to join the University of Nebraska family, though we love Corvallis and Oregon State, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach at one of the nation’s most storied football programs and I can’t wait to get started.“
A Meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska and Response by Mike Riley
Though Mike Riley was moving from Corvalis, Oregon to Lincoln, Nebraska it was communicated that he intended to honor his promise and bring Brenda out to Lincoln. That happened on Wednesday June 22, 2016. Brenda wrote up an account in the Oregonian and I would like to leave it intact as it communicates a lot.
just got off the plane from Nebraska …
Getting to Nebraska was interesting. I was supposed to leave Denver for my connecting flight at 8 p.m., but my flight got delayed not once, but twice and then a third time. As it got later and later I was wondering if I was ever going to get there. I was already stressed about meeting Riley and now sitting there at the terminal listening to angry passengers around me I thought “What am I doing? Do I really want to meet Riley? What if this goes bad?”
Several hours later, when I finally did board the plane – it was a little one. Three seats across and I had the single seat next to the window. As the plane ascended the ride got bumpy. Turbulence was tossing the little plane around and I started to think “It figures that I would board the one plane that’s probably going to crash. I’m going to die on my way to Nebraska. Why am I going to Nebraska!?”
The ride eventually smoothed out and instead of being distracted by thoughts of dying in a plane wreck I was left alone with my anxiety about meeting Coach Riley. I started to cry in my seat. I was glad no one was sitting next to me. I didn’t want to talk about it. I just looked out the window, tears streaming down my face, praying that God would help me get through this meeting.
Two staff members from Nebraska football welcomed me at the airport. I knew that Lincoln was a football town, but I didn’t realize how much until, in the distance, I saw it – the football stadium. It was immense. It looked like a huge castle and it loomed over everything around it. It was lit up and even in the dark you could tell it cast a shadow over the rest of the town. As we drove by it, I felt this deep knowing that over many decades many women had fallen victim to a culture that valued football over human lives. My heart hurt, but at the same time I felt a deeper resolve to stand in front of coach Riley and his Husker team.
I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning I did a radio interview with Sharp & Benning on 1620 The Zone. Damon Benning was kind and supportive and he allowed me to speak about how I was feeling. It was therapeutic for me and it helped to calm my nerves. I did a few more interviews after that and then before I knew it, it was 2 p.m. I had one hour before I needed to leave the hotel for the University.
I turned off my phone for that hour and I tried to center myself. My PTSD was screaming at me. I felt like I was 24 again. I literally could feel myself peeling that used condom off my stomach the morning after my rape. I could smell the dried vomit in my hair …
At 3:15 I got into a car with Nebraska football staff and I headed off to the biggest meeting of my life. As we parked I immediately noticed the sign over the door I was about to enter. It said “Destiny Is Not A Matter of Chance, It Is A Matter of Choice.” Those words resonated with me deeply and in that moment I made a conscious decision to put one foot in front of the other and keep walking toward my destiny.
The Athletic facility was top-notch and I could understand why athletes in these programs could feel “special” and “entitled.” I mean, how could you not with all of this around you?
After looking around a little bit the assistant I was with said “In here, Brenda” as he waved for me to follow him. I looked to my right and saw an open office door. I stopped in my tracks and said “is he in there?” My heart was racing. The assistant stopped and said “Yes, I’m sorry – he is. Are you ok?” I took an audible deep breath and said “yes, I’m ok” and walked toward the door.
At the entry way of the door I saw a man to my right standing in a white shirt and blue tie. I would learn after introductions that he was the Athletic Director (Shawn Eichorst) and sitting down straight in front of me was Mike Riley. He looked up at me and smiled and in a loud voice said “Hi Brenda!” It was like I was a best friend that he hadn’t seen for a very long time. I immediately began to cry. We walked towards each other and without any sign of awkwardness we hugged and for a second I laid my head on his shoulder and cried.
It was a genuine human moment between two people and it is one that I will never forget.
For the next hour and a half I talked to Coach Riley and AD Eichorst. I said everything that I wanted to say and I asked every question that I wanted to ask. I didn’t leave any stone unturned. We talked about many things during that meeting and I paid attention to Coach Riley’s every word, every body movement and every facial expression. And what I came away with was that this man genuinely cared about me. He was full of compassion and empathy for what I had gone through and he fully recognized the impact that his words and actions had on my life. For years, I had been trying to convince myself that I mattered. That my story mattered and in that moment sitting across from Coach Riley I knew that I mattered.
Next up was the talk I would have with the team. Coach Riley introduced me and for the next hour I unloaded the Brenda Tracy story on all 144 of them. I told them every awful detail of that night in 1998. At one point I told them that “I hated Coach Riley more than my rapists.” When I said that I could feel the entire room shift their gaze to Coach Riley and then back to me. That’s when we started talking about transparency and accountability and how it’s ok to be wrong and admit it. We talked about consent and we brainstormed ideas about how they could get involved individually and as a team to change the culture that valued winning over human lives. We covered a lot of ground in that one hour and when it was over many of them came up to me and shook my hand or gave me a hug and thanked me for being there.
I was inspired and full of hope. It was amazing to see a room full of young men with so much potential to change the world. I was humbled and I was grateful. The team took a photo with me and they made sure that I was front and center for it. I also took a photo with Coach Riley. We stood in front of the trophy case and I smiled for the camera. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to.
I just got off the plane from Nebraska and I’m really glad I went.
This meeting got the attention of both the sports world and national news. You can read about it in USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CBS Sports, KOIN in Portland, and ESPN. In addition Oregon State issued an apology to her, and Brenda has been instrumental in helping to change statute of limitation laws in Oregon for sexual assaults and discussing sexual assault in college. She responded to the scandal at Baylor, and has been working on the Pac 12.
Lessons for the Christian Church
I red this story of Brenda Tracy and Mike Riley in the Washington Post the other day and I was stunned. There are many themes that stood out for me the biggest one being this…the importance of closure and how much it can help heal a person. There are a couple of other posts I have written in the past that you can read that deal with the theme of closure.
- “Forgiveness & Reconciliation: The Story of Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel in Minneapolis….” This post is about the healing that took place and is taking place between a man who murdered a mother’s only son, and the mother of that son.
- “The Story of Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida: Forgiveness Amidst the Ashes of World War II.” The amazing story of reconciliation and forgiveness between Jacob DeShazer and Mitsuo Fuchida – two enemies in World War II – teaches a lot about forgiveness and working through hate.
- “Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge: An Incredible Story of Grace, Forgiveness and Repentance in Florida.” Many parts of the Christian church have this forgive and forget approach to things, and in situations like that forgiveness becomes manipulative. Renee Napier and Eric Smallridge’s amazing story would never have occurred if the policy of forgive and forget was practice. Can you imagine if this was the norm and not the exception?
- “Why Are Evangelical Christians Terrible at Conflict Resolution? Thoughts about Redeemer Arlington and Fairfax Community Church.” This last post I want to feature highlights a question that hung in my mind. Jesus taught blessed are the peacemakers yet in regards to my false accusation from a Care Group Leader from Redeemer Arlington, and later on the situation at Fairfax Community Church, it made me ask. Where are the peacemakers? Why do evangelicals struggle to resolve conflict?
These are the lessons that I believe the church should learn from the University of Nebraska football coach.
- Mike Riley reached out to Brenda and decided to interact with her. Mike knew that he had to act, and act responsibly and he did that in his action. It took a lot of courage to do so and that should not be downplayed. In the process Mike Riley took the initiative in wanting to resolve this situation and help bring about closure. Mike, when he heard of what happened decided to reach out to her. No one forced him to do anything which is what amazed Brenda.
- The head football coach at the University of Nebraska went above and beyond in his efforts. Mike didn’t let the issue die when he moved to the Lincoln, Nebraska area from Corvalis. He pursued it still. Actually his efforts to resolve it went above and beyond what I think Brenda would have expected. Nebraska didn’t have to fly her out to Lincoln, he could have had a phone call and that was it. But Mike knew that in order to resolve something you cannot do the bare minimum. This is what I realized in approaching 140 people for forgiveness after my faith crisis, the bare minimum was going to be an insult for some people and I had to look at things from their perspective.
- Mike didn’t try and shut Brenda up. He didn’t say that she “gossiped” and “slandered.” He didn’t speak out against her to the best of my knowledge. When Brenda met with Mike he let her speak and say all that she needed to say. He didn’t try and stop, control or steer the conversation. He didn’t proclaim “issue resolved we are at peace.” He let Brenda work through her pain and he helped by supporting her. He stood by and supported her and let her come to the conclusion she needed to come by herself.
- After this conversation I can’t imagine Mike Riley sending Brenda an email saying “don’t contact me,” and building up a wall, like someone I know in Colorado Springs, Colorado who was discipled by Jordan Kauflin at Redeemer Arlington. Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if in a year or two Mike Riley calls Brenda back to speak about sexual assault. This ESPN article makes it clear that the door of communication is open between the two of them. His behavior during his coaching days at Oregon State realizes that he knows that he has to be open about it, and he takes a different approach.
- Mike owned his behavior by his actions. All of his actions from the reaching out and flying Brenda to Lincoln, Nebraska, to meeting with her, to letting her speak to his football team and giving her the floor reveal that Mike owned his actions.
- Mike supported what Brenda was doing which is also important. He realized how much of an issue sexual assault can be especially in light of the Brock Turner situation at Stanford.
- The last point I want to make is that Mike was willing to face Brenda. In an office in the University of Nebraska sports complex Mike allowed himself to be questioned. He didn’t get squeamish or uncomfortable, and let Brenda ask anything and everything she wanted in regards to the rape she endured in 1998 and Mike Riley’s actions.
In everything there is one thing that stood out that I want to point out especially. Today in many parts of evangelicalism you often hear “what a man is…” I’d suggest to you that 95% of it is crap and garbage. If we want to know what a man is I suggest the evangelical church look to Mike Riley in how he conducted himself, faced himself, and interacted with Brenda Tracy. Mike was concerned for Brenda, and he cared to do the right thing. He was troubled by what his actions caused another person and he wanted to do the right thing. Mike Riley didn’t run, he didn’t flee he also didn’t pound his chest and talk about masculinity he lived it by his behavior.
This was very refreshing to read about and see, and in light of all the dark news and issues I wanted to single this out and illustrate what a man does. Mike Riley did an amazing act of compassion and grace. In the process he also helped someone heal. That healing wasn’t forced, not under pressure but done with grace. Here’s another problem that happens today…many churches do not know how to resolve conflict. What many churches fail to recognize is that if you work with a person and help them through a situation and recovery…the situation will take care of itself. Mike Riley didn’t respond all that Brenda said and didn’t say, “Oh crap there is this woman talking about me or my institution and we need to get her to stop talking.” Nope, he responded by reaching and making himself available to her. He didn’t manipulate the situation and gave her all the time she needed and left the door open to continue the conversation. The situation is resolving itself by handling it properly and doing the right thing. When you are focused on image and damage control you are going to fail. When you are wanting to do the right thing then the problem will get fixed.
When I read this story I was struck by how Mike Riley’s behavior contrasted with Andrew White’s behavior. This post is not about Andrew, and yet when I read the mannerisms, behavior how Brenda studied Mike Riley it was like a deja vu experience for me. In my case the behavior on the phone in the conference call didn’t line up with the actions as I studied it. I was willing to give him a chance, but then he started to flee again. That was another problem. I also think about this in light of Fairfax Community Church or even Community Evangelical Free Church in Elverson, Pennsylvania. What if Steve Estes or Rod Stafford acted like Mike Riley? What if they allowed people to question them and grill them?
In closing I want to say this to Brenda if she ever reads this post. I am proud of you. I am hurting also…not from rape but from a false accusation that took aim at my name, income, and future. Its beautiful to see you go forward and impact the world. My hope is that you will continue, and that after you make some of these changes that you can focus on sexual assault issues in the church. I also want to say the following to Mike Riley if he or someone from the Nebraska football staff reads this post. I have had a deep respect for The Cornhuskers. I actually applied there in 1999 or so and was rejected. One of the reasons why I did so was because I wanted to attend a Nebraska football game. Today after I read this I still do. The University of Nebraska is fortunate to have Mike Riley as their football coach. He gets it, and he is willing to learn, grow and develop. What Mike did took an incredible amount of courage and I noticed it here from the Washington, D.C. area. We need more Mike Riley’s and less Mark Driscolls. To the Cornhuskers I wish you well. As always guys I love you!