Nebraska Coach Mike Riley Faces Woman Who Was Raped By His Former Players
In 1998, Brenda Tracy was gang-raped by four men. Two of those men played football for Mike Riley at Oregon State, and in the aftermath of the attack (at the time Tracy remained anonymous to the public) Riley suspended the men one game apiece. He said that they were "really good guys who made a bad choice."
The story sounds all too familiar, right? A powerful man in a position of authority excuses horrifying behavior, all in the name of sports, while a victim gets told that the life of the promising athlete is worth more than her own. That's usually where the narrative ends; with a defensive, self-righteous coach refusing to comment any further.
Fortunately for Tracy and the young men at the University of Nebraska, Riley is trying to blaze a new trail; one that begins with his own accountability.
Tracy identified herself as the victim in 2014 in a highly-publicized article by John Canzano of The Oregonian. The article graphically detailed the abuse that Tracy had suffered her entire life, including that six-hour gang rape when she was 24 years old. Canzano contacted Riley to interview him for the piece, and to the author's surprise, Riley was very open to talking about the ordeal. It's during that conversation that he first expressed his desire to have Tracy come speak to his players.
"Mike Riley, the football coach who Brenda Tracy resented so much all those years, is contemplating the unthinkable," wrote Canzano. "He wonders if Tracy, nurse and survivor, might stand in front of his football team someday and share the gravity of her terrible experience.
'What do you think?' he asked me.
I told the coach she'd be powerful.
'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.' "
Nineteen months later, Riley's invitation to Tracy came to fruition. On Wednesday she met Riley for the first time before telling a room full of his Nebraska football players that "at one point I hated [Riley] more than my rapists."
“You could literally see the whole room turn and look at Coach Riley," Tracy told a small group of reporters. "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..."
Tracy explained that finally meeting and speaking with Riley helped her to feel as though a ton of bricks had been lifted off her back. She described him greeting her with a smile, and how she began to cry on his shoulder as he embraced her. They spoke for more than an hour, and she asked him all the questions she’d wanted answers to over the past 18 years.
In a statement that Riley released after Tracy's visit with his team, he expressed his sincere gratitude that Tracy was willing to come to the campus and meet with him.
“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...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."
For Riley to step up and do this, knowing that he'd have to face someone who once held him responsible for her brutal rape, is incredibly important. This should be far more commonplace of course, but the sobering reality is that it's not. In fact it's almost unheard of, particularly in the world of elite college and professional sports. So for now, it's a much needed step in the right direction.
With the way rape culture exists in our society today, Riley could easily have never spoken to Tracy or acknowledged the situation again, and he'd have escaped with little-to-no accountability. Sadly, Tracy stepping up and sharing her harrowing survival of rape with the world isn't enough. The young men in these communities and on these campuses need to hear the gruesome details of her attack in a space in which they can't look away or close their browser or turn off their televisions. And they also need to hear the apologies and regrets of a man who had a hand in condoning such violence.
I sincerely hope that what Riley did for Brenda Tracy and for the young men in that room on Wednesday ends up making a difference, and that more coaches and people in positions of authority begin to follow his lead.
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