The powerful story behind the NCAA’s new sexual violence policy

It all started with a son who wanted to help his mother.

Brenda Tracy and her son, Darius Adams. CREDIT: Brenda Tracy
Brenda Tracy and her son, Darius Adams. CREDIT: Brenda Tracy

Last Thursday was what activist and rape survivor Brenda Tracy now considers a typical day. In the early afternoon, she spoke to the University of Massachusetts  football team about sexual assault and domestic violence prevention. In the evening, she gave the same talk to the men’s basketball team.

But between her meetings with the Minutemen, she unexpectedly got the news alert she’d been hoping for: The NCAA Board of Governors had unanimously approved a sexual violence policy, the first in its history.

Given the NCAA’s past actions, many understandably took this news with a healthy dose of skepticism. But Tracy saw things differently. For her, this was a moment of triumph, a signal that one person had the power to enact great change.

In this case, that person was her son.

Last year, Tracy’s oldest son, Darius Adams, watched his mother fall apart as details from the Baylor rape scandal flooded the media.  He knew why she was upset. In 1998, she was gang raped by a group of four men, including two Oregon State football players. Back then, the system failed her in every way, much in the same way it failed the Baylor victims. The head coach only suspended the players one game and said they merely made a “bad choice.” She was scared, and decided not to press charges. She suffered alone for years afterwards, before finally coming forward with her story in 2014 to Oregon Live. Since then, she’s found strength in advocacy, and a voice fighting for an overhaul of how athletic institutions, particularly at the collegiate level, handle sexual and domestic violence.

But watching the Baylor case unfold took her back to a dark place.

“When the Baylor scandal came out and Art Briles was fired, I was really triggered,” Tracy told ThinkProgress. “Why wasn’t the NCAA doing anything? I had talked to other people about this, and they all said, ‘The NCAA doesn’t get involved. They don’t care.’ Nobody seemed like they really wanted to rally.”

Adams saw how upset his mother was, and he asked her, “What if I write a letter to the NCAA?”

Tracy wasn’t thrilled about the idea at first, since she knew how frustrating the system was, but Adams persisted. So one night they googled the e-mail addresses for NCAA president Mark Emmert and all 19 members of the NCAA Board of Governors, and Adams sent them all a powerful letter, which spoke frankly about his mother’s struggles and the need for accountability and change.

[My mother is] my hero. And that’s why I’m writing to you. I’m a college athlete, and I watch ESPN religiously. There’s a serious problem in sports. We don’t take sexual violence seriously enough.Seventeen years ago Coach Mike Riley suspended the men that hurt my mom for one game and just yesterday I saw the story about Baylor. Nothing has changed. Schools are still more worried about money and football than people’s lives.

I’m a grown man now. I would never hurt a woman that way and I know that most men wouldn’t. Why are we protecting this small group of men? Why are we allowing them to destroy people’s lives? All of these victims have families and they get hurt too. I’m still dealing with what happened to my mom.

Tracy was incredibly proud of her son for taking action, but realistically didn’t expect anything to happen from there. But just six days later, Tracy and Adams were both shocked when they got an e-mail back from Emmert, not only thanking Adams for the letter, but also inviting them to the next Board of Governors meeting.

The following month, Tracy and her son attended the meeting with the letter in hand, alongside a petition with 157,000 signatures asking for the NCAA to ban violent athletes.

“We need to do something right now, and I think it starts with the NCAA creating a policy that bans violent athletes,” Adams said. “Enough is enough. It’s been 17 years and nothing has changed. How many more years do we have to wait for something to happen?”

Changes don’t happen overnight, of course, especially not in college sports.

But Tracy and Adams did leave that meeting with one significant victory: that day, the NCAA formed the Commission to Combat Sexual Violence, and Tracy was named as a member.

For the past year, she has been meeting regularly with other members of the commission, which includes high-profile lawyers, student-athletes, activists, administrators, and coaches, to discuss a way forward. Two months ago, the committee proposed a new sexual violence policy to the board. Last week, it was officially adopted by the NCAA.

She was incredibly emotional when she heard the news. “That’s really special,” she said. “Wow — one person and their activism.”

According to the new policy, “leaders on each NCAA campus — the school president or chancellor, athletics director and Title IX coordinator — must attest annually that coaches, athletics administrators and student-athletes were educated in sexual violence prevention.”

Additionally, each of the three campus officials must declare that the entire athletic department is knowledgeable about institutional policies and processes regarding sexual violence prevention and proper adjudication and resolution of acts of sexual violence; all of these policies, plus the name and contact information of the campus Title IX coordinator, must be readily available and accessible to student-athletes; and the names of colleges and universities that attest they have complied will be included in a report delivered each year to the Board of Governors and published on ncaa.org.

“The public cares a lot about what the NCAA says it cares about, so this helps to legitimize [sexual violence] as something the public should care about.”

Tracy likes this policy because it puts a premium on education, accountability, and transparency. But not everyone is sold — many of the elements of this policy are similar to federal guidelines that were already in place, and there is currently no clear way for it to be enforced.

“The public cares a lot about what the NCAA says it cares about, so this helps to legitimize [sexual violence] as something the public should care about,” Jessica Luther, author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, told ThinkProgress. “But for those of us who are tired of the NCAA not doing anything, I think there is a skepticism that comes with anything they say they’re going to do. My first impression is, I’d like to see something with a bit more teeth to it.”

Tracy certainly understands this criticism. She says the commission will continue to meet to figure out the best way to enforce this policy, and to make steps towards making a sexual violence bylaw, a process that often takes multiple years since it has to be voted on by all NCAA divisions, not just the Board of Governors.

What I’ve learned is the NCAA moves really slow, so the idea that they got this policy together in a year feels like lightning speed,” Tracy said. 

She still has her eye on the big prize, which is getting a policy in place that will ban violent athletes from the NCAA. She says that Emmert is open to the idea.

“If we want to drive culture change, we have to start attaching behavior to eligibility. We are having real discussions about whether being an NCAA athlete should be a privilege and not a right, and whether violent offenders should be able to play sports,” Tracy said. “The issue is still on the table, hopefully in a year we will be talking about a policy that is about banning violent athletes. I’m pretty excited about that.”

In the past week, Tracy has already heard from multiple people in athletic departments thanking her for the NCAA policy — she says most of them are people who have tried to enact change within their departments previously, but received pushback. The NCAA guidelines make it easier to convince the departments to cooperate. She also notched another victory this week when eight U.S. Senators wrote a letter to the NCAA urging them to adopt uniform sexual violence guidelines, ideally like the one Indiana University enacted earlier this year, which bans athletes who have been convicted of felony domestic violence or sexual assault.

Thanks to Tracy’s bravery, and her son’s inspiring letter, change is on the horizon.

I always tell people, you have to get in the car before you can drive,” she said. “Maybe this policy is just getting into the car. That’s okay. The point is, it’s a step.”