UP Pep coaches under fire over allegations of unauthorized fees, physical and emotional abuse

by Cristina Chi, J-Ann Avila, Leo Baltar and Aerielle Ulanday

(This is the first of two parts. Read the second part here.)

Two celebrated coaches of the University of the Philippines (UP) Pep Squad have been placed on a leave of absence from the team since February pending an inquiry into complaints of unauthorized penalty fines and incidents of physical and verbal abuse against them. 

The country’s premier state university also barred head coach Lalaine Pereña and assistant coach Pio Opinaldo from interacting with the multi-awarded cheerleading and cheerdance team, which escalated the issue to the Office of the Chancellor and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (OVCSA) despite an attempt at an alternative dispute resolution by the Varsity Sports Program (VSP) under the College of Human Kinetics (CHK).

Coach Niño Jose Antonio has been serving as interim head coach of the UP Pep Squad which placed a dismal sixth place in the 84th season of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines Cheerdance Competition (UAAP CDC).

UP has had the most podium finishes out of eight competing schools for 20 years and was champion for eight nonconsecutive years, mostly under the helm of Pereña. 

Pereña, the team’s longest-serving coach since 1998, faces allegations of fining athletes who missed training thousands of pesos – the biggest single instance reaching P150,000 – without the university’s knowledge, according to the VSP’s summary of the team’s complaints filed against her and three other coaches in April last year. 

This team of reporters was shown a copy of the report and corroborated the findings through interviews with 11 current and five former members. Most spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, especially for current members of the team.

Other allegations against Pereña, some of which she has owned up to, concern pre-pandemic team policies that required students to fork over portions of their meal allowance and the lack of transparency over what students said were exorbitant fees collected for international competitions. 

Opinaldo faces allegations of physically and verbally abusing members of the squad during training before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students also took issue with training policies enforced by assistant coaches Suyin Chua and Amity Casurao-Trono who allegedly required COVID-19 positive members to be present in virtual training.

The VSP, however, 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.”

But even as the university is bent on rehabilitating the relations between the coaches and student-athletes, a member said the current team and some alumni no longer find it possible to mend their relationship.   

“If this doesn’t work, if we don’t get new coaches, it will (get) worse for the team, because (the coaches) still bring up what we did to them during training,” the member said. 

The member added, “They don’t try to listen or reach out to us, or it’s a different approach on what they want. It’s just not working.”

Pereña rejected our request for an interview, saying via text message: “If there’s anything we need to clarify, we would prefer to do this directly with our team … All of us coaches are trying our best to heal and extending efforts to rehabilitate.”

UP Diliman Chancellor Fidel Nemenzo referred our request for an interview to the OVCSA. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Louise Jashil Sonido declined to be interviewed.

Penalty fines

According to the summary of complaints and interviews with current and former cheerdancers, Pereña routinely required athletes who missed training to pay fines to get their varsity clearances signed. 

One of the officers of the team said the varsity clearance needs to be signed by Pereña to give student-athletes their varsity priority during enlistment. The head coach’s house rules dictated fines for being late or absent during training, ranging from P300 to P500 per missed session. These rules were only relayed verbally and not explicitly stated in the athletes’ contracts.

While Pereña assured the team that the fees collected were spent for their benefit, the students – some of whom entered the university as far back as 2013 – said they were never shown an accounting of their expenditures. They sometimes still had to pool together money to pay for team expenses, the students said.

The summary of complaints, which included the coaches’ response to the athletes’ grievances, quoted Pereña as saying the collection of fines was meant to “instill discipline among student-athletes for attending training and to discourage absence and tardiness.” 

The head coach said the long-time policy had worked over the years and that she stopped enforcing the collection of fines during the pandemic.  

Our interviews showed that the fines also involved large sums. A Pep Squad member had to cough up P150,000 to sponsor the team’s shoes after she missed the midyear training in 2018 due to an overseas trip. Pereña said this was a “consequence” and not a “penalty fine” and the suggestion came from former members.

The student’s family had to take out a loan to pay the amount. Pereña said she did not know this and just “expected the student-athlete to be creative in raising the sponsorship money,” according to the summary.

An interview with the athlete, however, revealed that Pereña knew about her financial difficulties. 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.” 

According to the summary, Pereña expressed surprise that the athlete cited this incident in the team’s complaint, saying she had already apologized to the athlete this year.

The athlete denied this: “She never apologized. I never heard her say that she wanted to apologize.”

The athlete said she deposited the P150,000 in three tranches – P120,000, P20,000 and P10,000 – to Pereña’s personal account at Banco de Oro.

This is because the Pep Squad never had a team bank account, the athlete said.  

Transaction slips kept by the athlete’s mother indicate that they deposited P150,000 to Lalaine Pereña’s personal bank account at BDO.

“There’s a lot of suspicious instances when we wonder where our payment went. She doesn’t give us the breakdown of expenses as a team,” the athlete added.

The athlete said this made it difficult for her to ascertain why Pereña still asked the first-year students of the team to pay for their own shoes that year when the head coach had said the P150,000 she was made to raise would cover the shoes of all 60 members.

As for the first-year students who were made to fork over money for their own shoes, the coach did not show a breakdown of their expenses when the team purchased shoes or who the supplier was, said one of the team’s former officers.

“There’s really no receipt,” she said.“It’s not a thing in Pep to give out receipts. We just get surprised upon receiving the shoes.”

One of the current officers of the squad whom Pereña assigned to collect fines for late and absent members in 2019 said she would keep the money until she received the head coach’s instructions for its use.

“All Pep money (was) handled by Coach Lala,” the current officer said, referring to Pereña.

The current officer recalled that Pereña asked her on Nov. 11, 2019 to bring the money to the UP Gymnasium and order packed meals for the team. She paid a total of P14,110.

Two team members also said they directly paid their penalty fines to Pereña in her faculty office at the UP CHK in December 2019 and January 2020.

One athlete said he handed the head coach P1,200 in cash in December 2019 to pay for four late penalties. He added that Pereña told him that it was a good thing he paid on that day or else she would not sign his varsity clearance. The other athlete said she paid P300 in January 2020 for one late penalty. 

All this contrasts with Pereña’s account in the summary of complaints, in which she denied collecting the penalty fees herself and that “neither she nor any coaches received the penalty fees collected by their team secretary.” She also denied knowing how the team officers collected and disbursed the fees. 

Envelope which contains UP Pep Squad’s collected cash fines with a list of payers and corresponding amounts that Pereña gave one of the team’s current officers for keeping. Names were redacted for privacy.

Pereña also imposed fines for seemingly trivial matters, said one alumnus of the team.  

When he accidentally left his pair of shoes in their training venue at the UP CHK, the coaching staff asked him to pay a P5,000 fine before the shoes would be returned to him.

“The fine was more expensive than the shoes,” he said. “So I just bought a new pair.”

Everything from forgetting to bring their costumes (a P1,000 fine) to arriving at training only 30 minutes earlier instead of an hour earlier incurred a fine, he added.

“All of this was verbal, so it has no documentation even in our Facebook group,” he said, referring to the fine policy Pereña imposed on the team. 

Two members of the team said Perena’s old Facebook post in their group that listed the penalty fines of members has been removed. 

Allowance cuts

Benefits from the UAAP that the Pep Squad members were entitled to also had to be turned over to Pereña, team members said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the athletes received yearly about P3,000 in meal allowance checks from the UAAP. Under another unwritten rule in the team, members were required to encash the checks and give the money to Pereña, who then returned to each member a fraction of the allowance based on their seniority and participation in halftime performances.

Triste Norberto, a team member, said first-year students were given P100 per halftime performance while older students received P200.

In a text message supposedly from Pereña, Norberto was instructed to encash the P2,800 check and return to her P1,800. That’s because he supposedly only performed five times during halftime, at P200 per performance.

Another member of the team, who refused to be identified, said this setup was unique to the UP Pep Squad. His sister was a member of another varsity team at the university and didn’t have to surrender their allowances or benefits to their coaches, he said.

“We only got P3,000 per year and yet the coaches still collected most of the money from us,” he added.

While Pereña said in the summary of complaints that “neither she nor any coach collects the partial amount” from the meal allowance and that the allowance cuts were redistributed to other members, including drummers, one of the drummers said they have not received any money from the head coach since 2018.

The drummer said that it was “common knowledge within the team” that it was difficult to ask for money from the coaches. She said she and her teammates even had to pool together money every week to fund their commute to games before the pandemic. 

The VSP has recommended “further inquiry to determine the facts about the remittance/disbursement of penalty fee funds.” 

Instead of collecting fines, it also suggested to coaches to issue “written warnings, reprimands or eventual pre-termination of contracts, leading to barred enrollment in the university.”

These sanctions are already included in the “2021 Rules and Regulations of UP Student-Athlete Conduct and Discipline,” a set of rules that apply to all UP student-athletes, which state those who incur unexcused absences “exceeding 3% of the total number of practices” shall receive a written warning on the first offense, suspension on the second offense and a removal from the team on the third offense. 

The rules also state that the head coach may enforce stricter policies on attendance “subject to the approval of the CHK VSP.”

Undeclared expenses in Cheerleading World Championships

Even crucial opportunities to compete and represent the country abroad were mired with lack of financial disclosures from Pereña, according to student-athletes interviewed for this report.

Two members of the team who participated in the Cheerleading World Championships (CWC) competitions in 2017 said each participant had to shell out nearly P100,000 to compete.

Students were asked to send their payments to the personal bank account of Abigail Alvia, who a member said was close to Pereña and served somewhat as a coordinator from the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines (GAP), the institution that invited the team to the CWC competitions.

We reached out to Alvia for confirmation of this incident, but she has not responded to us as of press time.

An alumna of the team who participated in the competition said members were required to each come up with the expected amount themselves.

“Sponsorships are usually requested as a team. You can’t really ask individually so it made it a little difficult,” the alumna added.

The members said the team found the setup odd and asked the coaches for a breakdown of their accommodation and airfare costs, but no such report was shown to them.

According to the summary of complaints, Pereña asked participating members to sign a waiver in March 2020 acknowledging that they received $826 or P42,258.41 as payment for their plane tickets provided by GAP.

The document shows that the money should have been collected by GAP to pay for the plane E-tickets of the members for the 2017 CWC competition.

The concerned students said they never received the money and, in fact, paid out of pocket.

To explain the incident, Pereña said the waiver was related to a liquidation concern in 2017 when the team received financial assistance from the university and that previous funding was used to cover payables for a 2015 international competition, according to the summary of complaints.

According to her account in the summary, the liquidation concerns were already resolved. She refused to answer us when we sought her clarification on the issue.

It is unclear as of now which corporate sponsor or entity asked Pereña for the signed waivers and how many UP Pep Squad members actually signed.

In response to the team’s multiple complaints about lack of transparency, Pereña admitted that “financial accounting and reporting have not been her strength and that the team did not practice this.” But she said that if asked to do so, she could have provided the financial reports.

Our team reached out to Pereña to ask if she has a copy of the expenditures of the team from at least 2017, however she rejected our request for an interview.

Lack of checks and balances 

Coaches, who are considered members of the faculty under the university’s Faculty Manual of 2003, are required by the manual’s Code of Ethics to “maintain honesty and fairness” in dealings with students. They are also prohibited from “dealings with any student involving money” that could affect their standing.

How coaches collected large amounts of money without any of it appearing on a liquidation report could be explained by the VSP’s lack of accounting measures among UP’s varsity teams.

VSP Vice Chairperson Mona Maghanoy said varsity teams in the past were “left autonomous in finding ways to augment their own finances” and sponsors. They only needed to submit reports when they got financial assistance from the university. 

Maghanoy added that VSP does not require varsity teams to get a team bank account, but they are encouraged to do so.

The responsibility of handling the team’s finances should be delegated to several members of the coaching staff and the student-athletes to ensure checks and balances and avoid situations where coaches raise suspicion, said Carlos Valdes, president of the Philippine Cheerleading Alliance, the official governing body for cheerleading in the Philippines.

It took the student-athletes’ complaint against Pereña for the VSP to recommend measures related to the Pep Squad’s finances. Besides an inquiry into the liquidation of the financial assistance received by the UP Pep Squad in 2015 and 2017, it proposed proper accounting and periodic reporting of funds collected and disbursed by the team of future events and seasons. 

The VSP also recommended that it be furnished with a copy of the Pep Squad’s annual reports starting this year.

CHK Dean Francis Diaz did not respond to our request for an interview. 

Norberto, who has been a Pep Squad member since 2018, said the team previously could not speak out in fear of coaches retaliating by terminating their varsity contracts, which require them to compete in the UAAP for a minimum of four years.

“So we thought: ‘Let’s just let it be. What can we do? We signed the contract,’” Norberto said. “The coaches always rubbed it in that it was our choice (to join the Pep Squad) and that they didn’t force us.”

Norberto said the team filed the long-overdue complaint last year to finally “change the system in the UP Pep,” which he said would not happen by retaining the same set of coaches.  

“It’s not really for us. It’s for the future members of the squad,” Norberto said. 

An earlier version of this article was completed for Journalism 105 (Investigative Reporting) class under Professor Yvonne Chua.

This story also appeared in the Philippine Collegian.