by Cristina Chi, J-Ann Avila, Leo Baltar and Aerielle Ulanday
Content warning: This article contains vivid descriptions of physical and verbal abuse.
For years, the prized cheerdancers of the University of the Philippines (UP) carried the weight of the expectations of a community that revered them as powerful figures of the sport, yet had no idea of the financial, physical and emotional cost of being a member of the team.
Members of the 28-year-old UP Pep Squad had let their coaches’ questionable fee collections and disciplinary actions pass because they mistakenly thought these were “normal” and out of fear of being excluded from competition lineups, according to the retelling of student-athletes interviewed for this story.
But tough training conditions fuelled by the pandemic and the university’s shift to a remote setup became a “boiling point” for the current roster of members to file formal complaints against the coaching staff in April last year, they said.
Head coach Lalaine Pereña, who faces allegations of collecting unauthorized fees from athletes, including penalty fines, and assistant coach Pio Opinaldo have been placed on leave from the team while awaiting an inquiry by the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA).
One of the officers of Pep Squad said Pereña’s logic in imposing penalty fines to discipline the team had only created fear between the athletes and the coach. “Money doesn’t discipline us in any way,” she said.
Carlos Valdes, president of the Philippine Cheerleading Alliance, said since being involved in the cheerdance scene 16 years ago, students and their parents have privately approached him to describe incidents of coaches’ “monetary abuse.”
Valdes said, however, students and their parents rarely filed a case because of the power vested in coaches who could make or break an athlete’s career prospects. Parents of the students were also reluctant to “bring chaos” to the lives of their children by filing a complaint against coaches, he added.
And since cheerdance is a “contact sport,” Valdes said coaches also tended to bear down on the athletes’ use of their bodies.
With team house rules and methods of discipline left largely up to the coaches, the Pep Squad’s coaching staff would occasionally resort to harsh methods, such as shouting obscenities and hitting athletes’ bodies.
A former member of the team recounted “one of the most traumatic things” he experienced in the squad when he witnessed the coaches punish his two teammates who forgot to bring their shoes.
According to his account, the athletes were forced to do 20 rounds of sprints barefooted while a construction project near the Aldaba Rehearsal Hall where the team trains was ongoing.
The two were then compelled to do gymnastics training later on, the member said.
“I had to help my teammates climb up the stairs because they couldn’t walk anymore,” he added.
One member recalled how Opinaldo subjected them to physical and verbal abuse in the 2019 Cheerleading World Championships (CWC) in Japan.
On the first day of the competition, when the team was trying out their stunts in front of competitors from different countries and repeatedly failed to execute them properly, Opinaldo started yelling at two of his teammates while correcting them, the member said.
“His anger wasn’t the normal anger you see from a coach to an athlete. His anger seemed to come from a grudge,” he said.
As Opinaldo was throwing his raging fit, competitors from other countries watched, the member said.
“The incident frightened me, and I couldn’t do anything as I was in shock … Coach Lala and the assistant coaches also just stared and didn’t do anything,” he said.
He added, “There’s a fine line between discipline and abuse, and for me and our team, we knew that what happened that day was abuse.”
According to the summary of complaints compiled by the university’s Varsity Sports Program (VSP), Opinaldo admitted to several incidents of physically and verbally abusing the student-athletes, including shoving an athlete across a room during training and throwing slippers at them.
He said he resorted to physical methods and sarcastic remarks to toughen up the athletes, according to the summary.
The summary also quoted Opinaldo as saying that “the UP Pep Squad doesn’t usually get the best talent,” so he is typically extra hard on them.
Some athletes also said they were subjected to “body-shaming” remarks from Opinaldo that affected their mental wellbeing, with the summary of complaints detailing an incident when he commented on an athlete’s weight while they were eating.
An alumna said, “I never felt like I deserve (to) rest, I never felt like I deserve to go home. I never, until now, I don’t feel like I deserve to eat.”
In response to these incidents, Opinaldo said he usually jokes with the athletes as he has a close relationship with them, according to the summary.
The VSP recommended that Opinaldo revisit his coaching philosophy and adjust his coaching style to support the “basic psychological needs and well-being of the student-athletes.”
Opinaldo, who was contacted in January and July of 2022, has not responded to any of this investigative team’s requests for comment and interviews.
An alumnus said he mistakenly thought all those injuries the members endured throughout their stay in the squad were normal.
He admitted that it even came to a point that he would be happy when the Pep Squad lost in the annual University Athletic Association of the Philippines Cheerdance Competition (UAAP CDC), hoping that the coaching staff led by Pereña would be replaced as a result.
When UP Diliman’s varsity teams shifted to virtual training due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Pep Squad coaches required infected members to still sit in front of their laptops to observe their teammates’ drills, according to the members’ accounts in the summary of complaints.
Both assistant coaches Amity Casurao-Trono and Suyin Chua, according to the students’ complaints in the VSP summary, disregarded their physical and psychological health when they imposed stringent rules for virtual training during the pandemic.
In one instance, Chua reprimanded one athlete who asked to be excused from virtual training due to dysmenorrhea because “she did not try to train through the pain,” according to the summary.
Members of the team brought up their concerns to the coaches in early 2021 to negotiate a lighter training regimen where students could do their strength conditioning offline on certain days of the week and sick members could be excused from joining. But the coaches rejected their suggestions almost immediately and aggressively, said members of the team.
One member said that then assistant coach and current interim head coach Niño Jose Antonio shouted at the athletes through Zoom despite having told the athletes in private earlier that he understood their concerns.
They added that the coaches “retaliated” by not speaking the next time they had training. They would play a video of the workout, wait for an hour and then leave.
Responding to the members’ complaints, Casurao-Trono said through email: “The passion of the coaches and the undeniable sacrifices of each and every member of the coaching staff have a great part in the UP Pep Squad’s journey to becoming respected champions. We will not do anything to taint the reputation which we helped build.”
She added, “I believe that we can resolve the struggles of the members as well as the coaches through the proper process.”
Chua, on the other hand, has not responded to any of this investigative team’s requests for an interview as of press time.
When the squad reached out to the VSP, they decided to include even pre-pandemic incidents in their complaint, which members said had been difficult to raise since they entered the team.
One member described it as long overdue: “We included it because we felt we didn’t want it to happen to the other younger residents when the older batches will leave. The situation – we felt we didn’t want it to happen to anyone else.”
In all, the team said the progress toward resolving their grievances has been inadequate and slow.
For instance, it was only on July 14, three days after we reached out to the OVCSA for comment and informed them of our intent to publish this article, did the VSP and the OVCSA issue a memorandum calling for a “team meeting” with the students and the coaches for the first time this year.
However, on the morning of July 19, Vice Chancellor Louise Jashil Sonido said the coaches could not attend the meeting for now because they had to “sort some things out,” according to one of the athletes.
Sonido said in an email July 21 that this was misattributed to her, and that she never said the coaches were unavailable. The vice chancellor only initially told the team that the meeting would be postponed.
"To be clear, the dialogue yesterday would actually have been postponed until all parties were available, but it was the team that requested through the captains that we push through and that I grant them audience, so I did."
One of the officers of the team said: “We wanted that dialogue with the coaches and the whole team since April 2021. Why a year and three months later?”
According to the athletes present during the July 19 meeting, Sonido told the squad that Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo could not attend the meeting at the time as he was in Mindanao and won’t be back until next week. They added that Sonido said the team would have received a final decision on their grievances against Pereña and Opinaldo if he were present.
Nemenzo attended a dialogue with UP workers in Quezon Hall on July 20. He confirmed through email that he got back from UP Mindanao just before 12 a.m. of July 20.
Sonido acknowledged her error in an email to us July 21: "I genuinely thought [Nemenzo won't be back until next week] at the time, but was mistaken."
“In all these meetings/dialogue, I am represented by the vice chancellor if I am not able to attend,” Nemenzo added.
Nemenzo did not respond to our question on whether his office was ready to give a final decision.
During the first time the OVCSA spoke to the whole team, and not just the captain and co-captain, in December, a member said Sonido repeatedly asked them what they wanted to happen. They said their “minimum goal” was for a coaching staff overhaul.
This is why members of the squad said they felt disheartened when they were presented a resolution in February allowing Chua and Casurao-Trono to resume their coaching duties and appointing Antonio as temporary head coach.
In the summary of complaints and the coaches’ responses, the VSP found Chua and Casurao-Trono’s explanation “sufficient” and simply advised them and the coaching staff to “align their training policies with existing university policies related to teaching and learning implementation during this pandemic.”
In a Feb. 2 initial meeting with the captain and co-captain, Sonido said replacing the whole coaching staff would not “solve everything,” said one member of the team.
“(Sonido) said they cannot replace the whole coaching staff since many of them are volunteer coaches. They understand that there will be some who’ll be demoralized and angry, but they ‘want to appeal and try again’ because the issues that they heard are rooted in many things and are not just a matter of attitude,” the officer said.
According to the members’ account, they also weren’t asked by the VSP and the OVCSA whether they agreed or disagreed with the resolution.
Vice Chancellor Sonido did not respond to our request for comment.
Unknown to fans of the sport, before the UP Pep Squad took the stage in the CDC on May 22, they were under a six-month training moratorium that lasted from Aug. 20, 2021 to Feb. 3 this year.
The VSP had put the squad’s group training program “on-hold indefinitely” to “allow both coaches and student-athletes to take time for a breather until we resolve this matter.”
In fact, members of UAAP’s most decorated cheerdance team only began their try-outs for the competing line-up on March 21 – around two months before performance day.
Weighed down by six months of training on their own and more than a year of waiting for a resolution to their grievances, the UP Pep Squad failed to secure a podium finish in the CDC for the fourth straight season, finishing in sixth place.
According to the summary of recommended resolutions by the VSP, part of the students’ and the coaches’ rehabilitation process would involve regular check-ins from the VSP with the coaches and athletes, together and separately.
During CDC training, one of the officers of the team said the VSP did not hold regular check-ins with the whole team, reaching out only to the captain and co-captain.
The officer said VSP Vice Chairperson Mona Maghanoy reached out to the captain once in April and three times in May through Facebook Messenger to ask about the status of the team and how they were faring in training.
The officer added that aside from name-calling and ordering the team to do 50 push-ups because they couldn’t do a drill, Antonio once made a joke in reference to the team’s grievances against the coaches, saying he would “file a grievance” because the team couldn’t “think.”
Antonio did not respond to our requests for an interview through email and Messenger.
Maghanoy said the VSP kept its communication lines open to all teams during their face-to-face training.
“The VSP has been coordinating with the captains, those in competition and those who are not, during their season. All channels were open for communication to all student-athletes during this Season 84,” she said.
Maghanoy added that as of July, the VSP has yet to hold a post-season evaluation with all the teams that competed in the UAAP, including the UP Pep Squad.
Despite a directive from Nemenzo for Pereña to refrain from any involvement with the team, one of the team’s officers recalled one instance when he heard the team costume designer ask Antonio whether Pereña would approve their uniform.
One of the members of the team also said Antonio approached them in March and told them not to hesitate to reach out to him or Pereña if they needed any help.
A cofounder of Nowhere to Go But UP, one of the primary foundations that donate to UP’s varsity teams, said that UP, as a state university, does not provide significant financial support to its varsity teams.
Before the organization stepped in to crowdsource donations for student-athletes in 2014, “they were going to games hungry or chasing jeepneys to commute to venues,” the cofounder said.
The cofounder also said that unlike other universities where coaches can focus on their coaching duties alone, UP coaches have to think of how to raise funds for the team.
“I saw the sacrifices of the coaches. If only (people) knew how little they earned … It’s not commensurate,” she added. “But of course that’s the job they signed up for.”
Pereña has spoken publicly in the past about the need for student-athletes to “give” to the university. She said in a 2015 Philippine Star interview: “They (UP Pep Squad members) are not here to expect benefits that they will receive from the university, but instead, they are the ones who will be giving their services to the university.”
She added, “A 100% commitment is needed to be able to stay in the team, both mind and heart fully prepared to accept the challenges and that it won’t be easy.”
But this is what the squad hopes to end after years of tolerating unfair practices that had put them at a disadvantage.
Students interviewed in this report said they cannot deny that Pereña built the UP Pep Squad’s reputation. Since she started coaching the team in 1998, the squad has clinched the most podium finishes in the UAAP CDC. She only had to say so and the team would shave their head for a performance or pull out of the competition in protest.
But despite Pereña’s strong command that brought the UP Pep Squad its glory years, her prolonged hold on the team, under which all these abuses happened, has also resulted in what the members believe are now ineffective and outdated coaching practices.
A member recalled Pereña’s response when the team asked the coaches to reconsider the training policies they imposed in the online setup.
“She said that as long as she’s the team’s head coach, nothing will change,” he said.
This article has been updated with clarifications from Vice Chancellor Sonido on the dialogue held July 19.
An earlier version of this article was completed for Journalism 105 (Investigative Reporting) class under Professor Yvonne Chua.
This story also appeared in Tinig ng Plaridel.
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