MEMBERS OF the UP Pep Squad have accused head coach Lala Pereña, assistant coach Pio Opinaldo, and other members of the cheer team’s coaching staff of “unauthorized penalty fines and incidents of physical and verbal abuse.”
A two-part investigation, jointly published in the University of the Philippines’ Philippine Collegian and Tinig ng Plaridel, corroborated the accusations with interviews with sixteen members of the team, both current and former, who spoke with reporters under condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. (Read part one here, and part two here.)
Fines, abuse detailed by UP Pep Squad members
Among the incidents uncovered by the reports was a fine to the tune of P150,000, allegedly levied on an athlete for missing the midyear training back in 2018.
“The head coach initially pegged the amount at P200,000, but reduced it to P150,000 after the athlete informed her that her family ‘didn’t have connections,’” said the report.
The student paid out the fee in three tranches to Lala Pereña’s personal bank account.
Pereña told the athlete that the amount would be used to pay for shoes for all 60 members.
Other members also alleged that, during the 2017 Cheerleading World Championships, athletes had to pay P100,000 each. In the competition, held in Takasaki, Japan in November of that year, the Pep Squad represented the Philippines in the all-female team cheer, all-female small groups, and mixed small group categories. Payments were deposited to the bank account of a Pereña associate.
But for these transactions and fines, no breakdown of expenses was ever given, said the athletes. “All Pep money (was) handled by Coach Lala,” said one team officer to the campus journalists.
Photographs of bank deposit slips, financial waivers, and informal accounting tabs were included in the report.
Athletes also sounded off on the physical and verbal abuse allegedly committed by the coaching staff.
These included forcing athletes to run 20 rounds of sprints barefoot near a construction area, shoving members during training, and body-shaming remarks that led to one cheer member feeling like she “never felt like I deserve rest, I never felt like I deserve to go home. I never, until now, I don’t feel like I deserve to eat.”
They weren’t spared abuse even during the COVID-19 lockdowns, which prohibited face-to-face training, say Pep Squad members.
Members who felt ill or were infected by COVID were still forced to watch team drills on their devices, they alleged.
University response to UP Pep Squad investigative report
Pereña, who has served with the team since 1998, has been instrumental to the UP Pep Squad’s success. Across two decades, the university has been the most decorated among the UAAP schools in the sport of cheer, with eight championships to its name.
In April 2021, the team filed a complaint against her and three other coaches.
The College of Human Kinetics’ Varsity Sports Program has attempted a dispute resolution, said the report, though the issue has since been escalated to the office of the Chancellor and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA).
Pereña and assistant coach Pio Opinaldo have been placed on a leave of absence from the Pep Squad since February of this year.
Since the release of the explosive investigation last week, the OVCSA said that the “articles misrepresented our intentions and preempted certain steps that we are taking to constructively move forward.”
The statement added, “We remain committed, however, to increasing overall support for the well-being of all our athletes and coaches.”
The Varsity Sports Program has also called the stories inaccurate.
More than 60 alumni of the UP Pep Squad issued a joint statement supporting the reports from the Collegian and Tinig ng Plaridel, saying that it was “an accurate representation” of what they went through as athletes.
“As concerned members, we believe that the current coaching staff is no longer fit to continue to coach the team, nor do they represent the values of the university — honor and excellence,” said the alumni in a statement issued on July 22.