In 2019, the big stories in college football involved transfer quarterbacks, Alabama missing the playoff, and a new California law that will allow NCAA athletes to make money. The prevailing narratives in Texas college football this year were Baylor and SMU (good) and UT and A&M (bad). But in a few years’ time, we may look back at an otherwise nondescript November game between the University of Texas–San Antonio and Southern Miss as 2019’s watershed college football moment.
The Roadrunners lost that game 36-17, and there were fewer than 15,000 people at the Alamodome. And two weeks later, fourth-year head coach Frank Wilson, who had succeeded Larry Coker, lost his job. But UTSA still achieved something important on that day, because Brenda Tracy was in town.
Tracy, an Oregon-based activist and rape survivor, is well known in the college football world for her awareness-raising campaign about and against sexual violence in college sports, #SetTheExpectation. As part of her work, she has sung “Hail Stanford Hail!” with the Cardinal football team, been an honorary captain for Jim Harbaugh’s University of Michigan squad, and spoken to players at Baylor, SMU, and the University of Houston (among many others). In San Antonio, Tracy accompanied the Roadrunners on their “spirit walk,” with the players, coaches, and UTSA athletic director Lisa Campos all sporting #SetTheExpectation T-shirts and wristbands. She also handled the pregame coin toss, with both Campos and UTSA president Taylor Eighmy (also clad in a T-shirt) looking on.
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But this was no mere ceremonial appearance. Tracy was at the Alamodome because she helped Eighmy and Campos develop what the school says is “the most comprehensive Serious Misconduct rule in the NCAA”—one that essentially prohibits athletes who’ve committed sexual violence (as well as other crimes) from playing UTSA sports. It’s called the Tracy Rule, and it’s the only one of its kind at any Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) school (the FCS Big Sky Conference, which has also worked with Tracy, has a similar policy). Nothing else, even at the conference level, currently comes close to this, while the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which suspends players for drug use and “impermissible benefits,” claims no jurisdiction over violent crime.
Having such a rule at a school that just went 4-8 in Conference USA is, of course, not as consequential as having it at a Big 12, SEC, or Big Ten football or basketball power. But, much like concussion protocols and paying players, the Tracy Rule (or something like it) has an air of inevitability, even if the process may take decades to implement. “I think it’s a huge statement that we’re making,” says UTSA men’s basketball coach Steve Henson. “Tying behavior directly to eligibility, or vice versa, is very, very important. We’re all in it to create a great environment for our student-athletes, and students in general. They want a safe campus, and I think this allows us to contribute to creating that safe environment.”
For Tracy, just being at a college football game will always have a dark side, even in the name of education and awareness. “Being a rape survivor and having to watch tens of thousands of people cheer for the people who hurt you—I don’t know that a lot of people understand what that feels like,” she says. “I do, and I know other survivors that do.” Tracy was 24 years old when she was gang-raped in a Corvallis apartment by four men, including two Oregon State football players, in 1998. The case never went to trial, and the Beavers players were suspended from the team for just one game, with then-OSU head coach Mike Riley saying they made a “bad choice.” Tracy lived with that trauma for sixteen years: the shame, the fear, the anger, the public second-guessing of her, the (unnamed) victim, rather than her rapists. But she also raised two now-grown sons, began a career as a registered nurse, and later got an MBA.
In 2014, she went public, giving an interview to Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano, which got her an apology from Mike Riley (then at the University of Nebraska), as well an invitation to speak to his players about rape culture and consent. Tracy now tells her story as a full-time job, working with universities, educating student athletes, lobbying the NCAA for reforms, and asking fans, coaches, and teams alike to #SetTheExpectation: a pledge to neither commit nor tolerate sexual or domestic violence. She’s nationally known, but it’s also a demanding gig, with constant travel and vitriol from online trolls—to say nothing of the emotional toll taken by constantly reliving her own rape. Tracy refers to college football season itself as “The Red Zone,” because, she says, the first semester of the school year is also when sexual assaults on campus occur more, and therefore the time when she is needed most. “This football machine created the men who raped me, but it’s still the machine that I want to work within to change things,” she says.
The Tracy Rule is the culmination of her work over the past five years, which has included the passage of several Oregon laws (regarding rape kits and statutes of limitations) as well as #SetTheExpectation. But a lot more coaches and teams have given Tracy a platform for her message than have signed the pledge.
What the Tracy Rule states, in part, is that: A current or prospective student-athlete who has been convicted of, pleaded guilty or no contest to a felony or misdemeanor involving Serious Misconduct, has been found delinquent in relationship to a juvenile code equivalent, or has been disciplined by the university or athletic department at any time during enrollment at any collegiate institution (excluding temporary disciplinary action during an investigation) due to Serious Misconduct shall not be eligible for athletically related financial aid, practice or competition at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
On first glance, one might think that surely this is how it is at every school. But that’s not the case. “I would say probably 99 percent of people don’t know that sexual assault is not an NCAA violation,” says Tracy, who spent two years serving on an NCAA “Committee to Combat Campus Sexual Violence” that resulted in no updated policy. (A change.org petition demanding that the NCAA reconsider that, posted by Tracy’s colleague Cody McDavis, now has more than 200,000 signatures.)
Tracy visited UTSA twice in 2019, speaking not only to student athletes but also to the school’s Greek system (one fraternity, Fiji, signed the #SetTheExpectation pledge). Whereas NCAA discipline is top-down—bureaucrats telling schools and students what to do—stands against sexual violence on campus go from the students up. Students at Texas A&M and UTSA have played an active role in both protesting rape culture and pressuring their universities to institute reforms. Tracy tells male athletes that roughly 10 percent of the male population is responsible for all the bad behavior, so it’s up to the other 90 percent to hold them accountable. UTSA golfer Collin Clark, who is also president of the school’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, describes the reaction he and his fellow students had to #SetTheExpectation—and, eventually, the Tracy Rule—as disbelief that such a policy wasn’t already in place. “I don’t know how this isn’t a thing already,” he says. “It should be a thing.”
Tracy believes that if it were up the student athletes, rather than the big-money machine of college sports, the Tracy Rule would already be everywhere. “It’s the administrations that are dragging their feet,” she says. Yet at UTSA, she found a receptive audience in Campos, who’d seen Tracy speak when she was the athletic director at the University of Northern Arizona, and in Taylor Eighmy. During one of Tracy’s campus visits, the UTSA president met with her in his office and asked, “What could UTSA do better?” “I said, ‘I would really like you to consider adopting this rule,’” Tracy recalls. “I’ve been working on this for years. I need someone to step up and have the courage to implement this rule and be the first in the country to do it. And he said that that was them! Right then and there.”
UTSA’s coaches didn’t hesitate to embrace the rule, in part, says Campos, because it wouldn’t necessarily change anything for them (though what school wouldn’t say that, even if their actions suggest otherwise?). “I think that speaks to the character of our coaches and the character of our student athletes that they were already recruiting to UTSA,” Campos says. “And this was a way to really make it official and to formalize it.” “It puts things into policy that many coaches are already doing, for sure,” adds Steve Henson. “Hopefully more schools will jump on board.”
There’s more money and more pressure to win at college sports behemoths, but in reality it should be even easier for a big-time school to do this. If they have to pass up one blue-chip recruit or big-time transfer, there’s always going to be another one (never mind that it should just be easy to pass up a violent athlete, with no qualifiers). But losing even a single great player at a “high-major” basketball program like UTSA could change an entire season, while the NCAA “transfer portal” gives its football team (as well as those at schools like Houston and SMU) access to talent it could not successfully recruit out of high school.
After the Baylor scandal in 2015, the Big 12 and the SEC, among other conferences, put new rules in place to emphasize the screening of transfers and recruits. To Tracy, they don’t go far enough, lacking comprehensiveness and accountability. The Big 12 (which includes Baylor, UT-Austin, Texas Tech, and TCU) calls on its schools to “address serious misconduct” by current student athletes and “exercise diligence” for recruits, but “serious misconduct” is defined and adjudicated by the schools themselves (though the term must include sexual assault and domestic violence). At UT (which is currently revising its policies) that definition is outlined in the student athlete conduct handbook, and includes “sexual assault, domestic violence, rape, aggravated assault or other serious crimes of a sexual or violent nature.” The Southeastern Conference (which includes Texas A&M) has a “minimum expectation for due diligence inquiry” and defines serious misconduct as “sexual assault, domestic violence, other forms of sexual violence, dating violence or stalking; or conduct of a nature that creates serious concerns about the safety of others.”
UTSA’s own conference, Conference USA, has no student athlete conduct policy in its member handbook. The University of Texas-El Paso (like UTSA, a CUSA member as well as another school in the UT system) student athlete handbook has a policy covering criminal conduct, as well as an extensive section on “sexual harassment and misconduct,” including definitions of consent and sexual violence. But that only covers current athletes, not recruits or transfers.
What sets the Tracy Rule apart is its specifics, which show up in the due diligence form every coach and athlete must submit before a recruit can even visit campus, as well as in the rule itself. In drafting the language, they tried to consider every loophole. Tracy added provisions covering juvenile delinquency and civil lawsuits. She expected the school might ask her to dial back or soften some provisions, but instead, UTSA added an even longer list of specific criminal infractions for the due diligence form, including incest, hate crimes, murder and manslaughter, and revenge porn. For transfers, the Title IX coordinator at the athlete’s previous school also has to sign off on a separate due diligence form.
The biggest difference between the Tracy Rule (and the Big Sky conference rule) compared with any others is that it specifically includes misdemeanors, not just felonies. That’s not to say an athlete can lose their scholarship for shoplifting or joyriding, but many acts of sexual violence that result in legal charges (or plea bargains) wind up as misdemeanors.
Another key provision is who ultimately gets to decide whether or not an athlete gets to play. At UTEP, the disciplinary fate of players is largely in the hands of the athletic director. Big 12 rules explicitly call for such decisions to be made outside of the athletics department. At UTSA there is a “Tracy Rule Review Panel” that includes people from all walks of university life, including the university’s Title IX coordinator (or designee), and, in some cases, at least one “trauma-informed” expert. Having “a robust waiver process,” as Tracy calls it, is still important to her. As the mother of two African American men, she is well aware that the criminal justice system can be biased. She also notes, for instance, that there are people who wind up on a sex offender registry for public urination. “That’s not something that should prohibit an athlete from playing sports.”
But prohibiting some people from playing sports is what this is about, and that’s okay. Without something like the Tracy Rule, you get Sam Ukwuachu, the defensive end who transferred to Baylor after being dismissed from Boise State’s football team, then raped a fellow student athlete. You get Torrey Green, the former Utah State football player convicted of rape whom current Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells allegedly failed to discipline. The default has been for teams to accept players back. At UTSA, the default now is you’re out—or never in.
The Tracy Rule can’t stop sexual assault or even create a perfect state of awareness. What it does is reorder the priorities. It’s not so much a new rule as a new culture, one that displaces the “winning over everything” mentality. Legal due process may mean a person is innocent until proved guilty, but the Tracy Rule’s due process errs on the side of student safety. “If you have a problem with this rule, take a moment to reevaluate yourself as a human being,” Jose Bouquett, of the UTSA student newspaper The Paisano, wrote when it was first announced.
Often after Tracy speaks at a school, a coach who said all the right things when she was there doesn’t do the right thing when confronted with a tough call (as when Major Applewhite, then head coach at the University of Houston, jumped at the chance to hire Art Briles’s son Kendal, a former Baylor assistant, as his offensive coordinator). A policy takes those decisions out of the coach’s hands. It also lives on, at least in theory, even when a coach or athletic director gets fired.
Which, of course, actually happened at UTSA. Wilson was replaced by Jeff Traylor, who previously worked under Chad Morris at both SMU and Arkansas. Perhaps not coincidentally, Morris had also brought Tracy in to both those schools (her speech to Arkansas players was featured on ESPN’s Outside the Lines). “Coach Traylor was at two previous schools (SMU and Arkansas) when Brenda spoke to the the football teams, so he was very excited about continuing to work with her at UTSA,” Campos told Texas Monthly via email. She also said the Tracy Rule was discussed with all potential candidates that UTSA considered.
It also came up in regard to one they didn’t. On the day Wilson was fired, the San Antonio media asked Lisa Campos about one particular celebrated former Texas college and high school football coach whose name has also come up in connection with the opening at Beaumont’s Lamar University (which plays at the FCS level). Her answer came fast.
“It’s easy to cross off Art Briles, given our relationship with Brenda Tracy and given the stance we’ve taken on sexual assault and sexual abuse awareness,” Campos told the San Antonio Express-News’s Greg Luca. “That is a pretty obvious one for me, but other than that, it’s going to be a wide-open search.”