Emails from UH athletic department show previous rhabdo cases, 'physical punishment'

HOUSTON – Several University of Houston women soccer players were diagnosed with a dangerous medical condition called rhabdomyolysis, better known as rhabdo.

Channel 2 Investigates first uncovered the problem in February.

The illness stems from a workout in late January. At the time, head coach Diego Bocanegra tweeted a weightlifting video with the caption, "Just another day at the office!" during the workout session in question.

Minor Bowens was the team's trainer at the time.

Days later, one player was getting checked for rhabdo at the hospital.

What is rhabdo?

"Rhabdo is pretty dangerous. It's basically a breakdown of your muscle tissue,” Dr. Noam Rosines, with River Oaks Emergency Room, said.

Rosines, who has seen cases in the past, said the breakdown develops after exhaustive workouts. He said it can cause kidney failure, which ultimately can lead to death.

After the initial diagnosis, nearly a dozen more members of the team came down with rhabdo, according to one player.

Channel 2 Investigates began digging into what was happening at the University of Houston athletics department and how the university was addressing the danger to its students. We obtained a series of emails that shows players were hospitalized, with some admitted overnight. When asked for his thoughts on the workout considering so many players came down with rhabdo, Rosines said, "It must have been one intense workout.”

As the medical crisis was unfolding within the team, emails show Bowens sending himself links to articles titled, “Rhabdomyolysis: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment” as well as “4 Things You Didn't Know about Rhabdomyolysis.”

Bowens was terminated after our initial report.

Channel 2 Investigates found more cases of rhabdo in student-athletes. In February 2018, Senior Associate Athletics Director Dejuena Chizer wrote in an email that the athletic department had “a few cases of Rhabdo.” The associate director of sports medicine distributed a prevention guideline. Records show those receiving the emails included Bocanegra and Bowens.

Then, two months prior to the most recent cases, Bocanegra in an email to a player's mother wrote: "I want to reiterate that I have implemented several changes to help prevent this injury or any other similar injuries from happening in the future. For example, we no longer use physical punishment within our team. I removed it from our weight room manual.”

"Unbelievable,” was the reaction by Dr. David Ridpath, a professor of sports management at the University of Ohio.

He has spent the bulk of his life working in collegiate programs, including as an assistant athletic director of compliance at Marshall University. He said that what Channel 2 Investigates uncovered is a first for him.

“I don't think I've ever seen punishments codified in any manual," Ridpath said.

It is not clear what "physical punishment" entailed during the women's soccer team workouts. We showed up at last weekend's alumni game on the UH campus to speak with Bocanegra, but he ultimately opted not to talk.

He was not alone. Athletic Director Chis Pezman also would not grant KPRC2 Investigates an interview.

The athletic department sent a written statement, reading in part, "The University of Houston has made tremendous investment in our student-athletes over the last several years to create an optimal environment for training and performance, in addition to their academic success."

However, the emails we uncovered show the environment up until recently included “physical punishment” within the women’s soccer program.

Ridpath had one final perspective: "If you want to punish the player, don't let them play. But coaches want them to play because coaches have to win."

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