Darius Adams thinks college sports has a big problem.
It’s not just that athletes on campuses across the country are committing acts of violence and sexual assault. It’s that schools often allow them to get away with it with little or no consequences. Their value as athletes takes precedence over their actions off the field. Faced with this landscape, Adams is taking his frustrations to the only group he thinks can make a difference: the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
"Sports are NOT more important than human lives!" Adams, a college basketball player himself, wrote in an impassioned Change.org petition. His goal is simple: Convince the NCAA to institute a policy banning violent athletes from college sports.
The campaign couldn't be more timely. One study has found that student athletes commit sexual assault at almost six times the rate of their classmates. The uproar over Stanford swimmer Brock Turner's six-month sentence for the sexual assault of an unnamed woman after a frat party, along with other recent, high-profile instances of sexual violence committed by athletes at schools like Baylor and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has helped bring the issue more firmly into the public eye.
For Adams, his campaign is directly tied to the experience of his mother, Brenda Tracy.
In 1998, Tracy was assaulted and gang raped by four men, two of whom played football for Oregon State. Following the players' arrest, their coach, Mike Riely, described them as "really good guys who made a bad choice." Facing intense pressure from the Oregon State community, Tracy did not press charges, and the players were eventually handed a one game suspension as punishment. What Tracy did not know is that the men had implicated one another in her assault when questioned by police—something she only learned when her story was the subject of a 2014 investigation by the Oregonian, after the statute of limitations for her case had run out.
The Oregonian story prompted Tracy to become what she calls an "accidental spokesperson" for fighting campus assault by college athletes.
"I just walked into the [Oregon State] capital one day and I said 'I’m Brenda Tracy, this story just ran about me, I think the statute of limitations should be changed,'" she explained to me over the phone. "And there were senators that said, 'Okay, we agree.' And that was pretty much how my lobbying started."
Since then, Tracy has helped pass a number of laws in Oregon, including one that extends the statute of limitations for serious cases of sexual assault. She has also become a consultant with Oregon State, working with president Ed Ray to help ensure what happened to her won't happen again. With Ray's help, Tracy successfully lobbied the PAC-12 conference to prevent college athletes from simply transferring to another school after having faced disciplinary action for a serious crime like assault or rape.
“Why are we allowing this to happen?" she said. "Why is an athlete allowed to be kicked out of one school for rape, and then transfer to another school and do it again? And still transfer to another school? Why is this happening? This is not okay.”
For Adams, watching his mother react to the ongoing fallout from Baylor University's handling of allegations of sexual assault by student athletes (she has since called for a yearlong moratorium on the school's entire football program) was the motivation he needed to get involved himself.
"[I was] just kinda hanging out, watching TV one night and she was pacing around the house kind of weirdly," he said. "I was trying to figure out what’s going on. And she was really, really upset about that whole Baylor thing, and I was just kinda thinking, like, I wanted to write something to somebody but I didn’t really know how so I was thinking, 'Oh dang, who better than the whole NCAA?'"
With his mother's help, Adams wrote what would eventually become his Change.org petition.
The petition, which is addressed to the entire NCAA, including President
Mark Emmert and Board of Governors vice chair L. Jay Lemons, is part of a suite of campaigns from the advocacy group Rise calling for "Common Sense Rape Survivor Rights." Since its launch in early June, the petition has garnered over 125,000 signatures, and plenty of supportive comments on the page:
"Being a nationally recognized athlete is a privilege," one person wrote. "When you rape or sexually assault someone, you lose that privilege. Violent athletes must be banned from playing; not doing so sends the message that what they did is okay."
Adams said people have also gotten in touch directly. "A lot of people messaged me talking about how my mom and myself are an inspiration to people who can’t speak out for themselves," he told me. "People are really supportive of it."
For Tracy, the support is just the start of changing the way the public can get involved in changing how campuses handle assault by athletes—especially given the spate of recent high profile cases.
"It’s really a timely issue right now. It’s really a great time for the NCAA to step in and do something," she explained to me. "So I think it’s going to take a lot of petition signers. I think it’s going to take a lot of media, and I think it’s going to take a lot of pressure, and it’s going to take a lot of people demanding that the NCAA do something."
Mike Riley, now head coach at the University of Nebraska, recently invited Tracy to meet, face to face, for the first time since her assault in 1998. She will also speak with his team, and appear on an upcoming episode of ESPN's "Outside the Lines." In a recent essay, Tracy wrote about what the meeting means to her:
"As I meet coach Mike Riley face to face for the first time and as the fear and the tears well up inside me, I will think about [Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner's victim] Emily Doe who faced her rapist in court and bravely read her letter. I will think of my brothers and my sisters who have been sexually violated and betrayed I will draw strength from all of them. I will carry their voices and their stories with me."
For Adams, the lesson is clear. He closes his petition with a simple request: "Please don’t do it for me or my mom. Do it because it’s the right thing to do."