This story contains discussion of sexual violence and efforts toward solutions.
Brenda Tracy has been advocating for sexual assault, harassment and violence victims for 25 years, and her story has helped turn athletes into allies.
James Smith-Williams is one of them. Together, Tracy and the Washington Commanders defensive end are speaking about just how important it is for men to be part of the solution against sexual violence, particularly in the world of football.
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Tracy survived a gang rape by four football players, two of whom played at Oregon State, in 1998. The District Attorney never prosecuted her case despite extensive evidence, which was later destroyed years before the statute of limitations.
She publicly came forward with her story in 2014 and has since started Set The Expectation, a nonprofit aimed at engaging and empowering men to create change in their communities. She has spread her message to college football players across the country, and her story struck a chord with Smith-Williams when he was playing at NC State.
“She issued a challenge and it was, ‘If you are a good man, what are you doing?’” he told NBC. “And that's really stuck with me and that's why I champion this cause.”
As Smith-Williams and Tracy know all too well, issues of sexual assault and harassment are continually relevant, especially in sports.
“I think that the influence of sports in our country is undeniable,” Tracy said. “And I think whenever you have an athlete step up and take a stand on any issue, really, it draws attention to them and it gets people thinking and gets people talking and a lot of whether fortunately or unfortunately we learn a lot about gender-based violence and the victims and the perpetrators through the lens of sports stories. So having athletes involved is really important because between sports and media, they're really driving the narrative of what we think and what we believe.”
Smith-Williams’ NFL organization was mired by a sexual assault and toxic workplace scandal that began at the top with former Washington owner Dan Snyder. Former employees alleged sexual assault against Snyder in front of a House Oversight Committee in February 2022, and a congressional report released in December 2022 said that the franchise covered up decades of sexual misconduct. Snyder reached an agreement to sell the Commanders in May and later paid $60 million to the NFL after it released its findings to an independent investigation.
Tracy has also been at the center of a high-profile sexual harassment situation involving a powerful football figure.
She filed a complaint with Michigan State University’s Title IX office in December accusing head coach Mel Tucker of making sexual comments about her and masturbating during a phone call. News of the complaint made waves last month and led to Tucker receiving a suspension without pay on Sept. 10. The university fired Tucker on Sept. 27 and terminated what remained of the 10-year, $95 million contract he signed in 2021.
Tracy had previously partnered with Tucker to speak to Michigan State players, and Smith-Williams believes it is all the more important for young men to listen to these critical stories.
“I think what it really starts at is just giving them a good basis of what even respect is at times,” he said. “I mean, you'd be surprised the amount of men that go through life without ever having a conversation of ‘What is it like to respect someone that isn't your mom, your sister?’”
The 26-year-old tries to set an example for other players on the Commanders, even those who are older and more experienced than him on the field.
“In our locker room, where it's a very sacred environment, it's holding them accountable when we're speaking freely and being like, ‘Hey, man, is that the language that you want to use to describe a woman for whatever your beliefs are about her?’” he said. “And it's a daily thing, but I think that guys will come around and you hold them accountable and really grow and mature.”
Tracy has seen Smith-Williams turn his words into action. He works with Set The Expectation Champions, a network of current and former athletes to assist families and survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and exemplifies many of the best traits that make a collaborative ally.
“James is a good ally to me because I think that, one, he listens,” Tracy said. “I think that he defers to people who have a good understanding of the topic. He understands that he has influence that he can leverage his platform as an athlete. And that it’s not enough to just not commit violence against other people, but what are you doing to create safe communities?”
Smith-Williams is still taking Tracy’s words to heart, as he believes listening is the most important skill he wants other allies to embrace.
“I think my biggest message is just to listen, really believe in those who come to you and trust in you and speak out when you see something's wrong,” he said. “I mean, it's very simple. If there's something going on, you believe in the right, don’t be silent, don't be complicit. Say it, speak it out or call it out.”