HOUSTON - "The absence of transparency is deadly in most cases," Donna Lopiano says.
Lopiano is considered by many as one of the most influential women in sports. She recently met with Channel 2 Investigates at her home in Connecticut in the midst of our investigation into physical punishment within the women’s soccer program at the University of Houston.
Senior leadership at the university, a public institution funded with taxpayer dollars, will not sit down for an interview to address what Channel 2 Investigates has uncovered.
"You can't have this type of behavior occur and then not have an explanation for it,” Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a member of the Senate Committee on Higher Education in Austin, said in a recent interview.
The behavior in question has been chronicled by Channel 2 Investigates since mid-April. Punishment within the UH women's soccer program is detailed in handbooks and emails. Coach Diego Bocanegra wrote last November that "we longer use physical punishment within our team" in an email. The email came nine months after an obscenities-filled punishment workout in February 2018 that sent a player to a hospital for nearly five days with the potentiality deadly condition known as rhabdo.
Eight days ago, the university launched an internal review, writing in a statement, “specific details of an event involving the UH women's soccer program that were previously unknown" came to light after our reports.
Lopiano’s reaction to internal reviews? "The institution isn't going to find itself guilty."
Lopiano, who spent nearly 20 years at the University of Texas as the director of Women's Athletics, said that "Athletic administrators should know that physical punishment is absolutely unacceptable. There should be standard athletic department policy that says physical punishment is not permitted," said Lopiano, who also served as the CEO of the Women Sports Foundation for 15 years.
Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, a nonprofit focused on the protection of college athletes, said that, "There are best practices out there that are published, they should have been abiding by them and apparently they are not."
Last Friday, Huma sent a letter to the chair of the UH Board of Regents, Tilman Fertitta.
In a two-page letter obtained by Channel 2 Investigates, Huma pushes for an investigation to answer why punishment workouts were used, which directly contradict the recommendations made by a joint task force in 2012.
Six years later, it was listed in player handbooks and used at the University of Houston, according to multiple individuals associated with the soccer program.
Days after a player was hospitalized with rhabdo following the February 2018 workout, the entire soccer coaching staff was sent an email calling for a meeting on how to prevent the condition. It is unclear if any disciplinary action was taken.
Getting information has proven to be difficult during our investigation. The university blocked out page after page of emails requested by Channel 2 Investigates related to the punishment workout of February 2018. They also have asked the Texas attorney general to keep other documents secret. Neither Athletic Director Chris Pezman nor University President Renu Khator will agree to an interview.
Bettencourt says the university needs to come clean.
"The university owes the students and their families, and quite frankly the public, an explanation," he said. "You have to have someone that takes ownership of a problem that explains what happened."
The lack of transparency is not good for any institution, according to Lopiano. She also says an independent investigation would be best practice.
"You want to do an independent, outside assessment to look at so there is no conflict of interest," she said.
Here is a statement from the University of Houston Board of Regents:
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