UH women's soccer player: Team was forced to endure punishment workout that led to rhabdo

By Mario Diaz - Reporter

HOUSTON - Earlier this year, Channel 2 Investigates reported that one dozen members of the University of Houston women’s soccer team were diagnosed with the dangerous medical condition called rhabdomyolysis, better known as rhabdo, following a late January workout.

Since then, we have spoken to those involved, including one player who has spoken in depth with Channel 2 Investigates about what the workouts were like and why they happened in the first place.

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

Our reporting has uncovered head coach Diego Bocanegra admitting that his program relied on “physical punishment” in an email provided to Channel 2 Investigates by the university, and how Senior Associate Athletic Director Dejuena Chizer raised no red flags, signing off on Bocanegra’s email from last November as she told him, "Diego, This is good. Thanks."

READ: Before rash of rhabdo at UH, 'fitness punishment' was listed in women's soccer handbook

Here’s the latest of what our reporting has uncovered:

What we have uncovered

What a player told us: Since our last report, Channel 2 Investigates has continued to scrutinize emails and speak with individuals closely associated with the team. Fearful of retribution, few spoke on the record. One player did speak up, however, saying, "Others are scared to speak out and I am too, but someone has to." The player asked us to keep her identity secret as she feared retaliation by the UH soccer program and the university. The player went into detail about the “punishment workout" she and others were forced to endure in February 2018, "He just told us to get up and go to the center of the field, and we all knew -- we have done up-downs before as a punishment -- so we all knew we were going to do up-downs and it was just a matter of how many."

What happened during the workout: The grueling workout included up-downs, planks and shuttle runs, according to the player, who said many on the team were having difficulty understanding what was going on. "I was just so mad and confused because, of course, I was going to keep going 'cause I'm scared, but I'm looking at everyone else and people were crying, barely pushing themselves off the ground.”

Players were scared: The player said Bocanegra uttered obscenities as many struggled. “Get up, Get the F up. This is your fault. Get up,' just, like, over and over again,” she said. She said the team was too fearful to speak up. "No one was going to say anything. Everyone was so scared." The workout lasted for nearly an hour and the player said she felt “tortured almost” afterward.

Why the punishment? Two players on the team were accused of, "stealing food from the football players," the player said. She said she and her teammates had planned for a quick practice. “Instead, we were punished for something that two people did that had nothing to do with everyone else,” she said.

Others confirm it: Multiple other individuals confirmed the punishment workout. One parent, afraid of the consequences for going on camera, told Channel 2 Investigates, "It did happen. I don't like the idea that a punishment was ordered." In the aftermath of the workout, a player checked herself into the hospital, according to the player as well as multiple sources. "It looked like there was a tennis ball sticking out of her arm," said the player. The player was hospitalized for nearly five days, diagnosed with rhabdo.

What the university says

Talking with the university: Sitting down with university leadership has proven to be challenging. None of the leaders entrusted with the safety of student-athletes -- Bocanegra, Athletic Director Chris Pezman, and University of Houston President Renu Khator -- would sit down with Channel 2 Investigates for an interview.

Communications office response: The University’s communications director, Mike Rosen, sent us a lengthy email last week that reads, in part, “ We have chosen not to make Mr. Pezman or anyone else available for an interview in which we believe the line of questioning will be at best prosecutorial in nature for a ‘gotcha’ news story that we further believe will lack appropriate balance and context.”

 

Is there potential criminality?

A legal expert on hazing cases: Austin-based attorney Ric Flores has prosecuted collegiate hazing cases. In an interview with Channel 2 Investigates, Flores said workout punishments are no different than fraternity hazing cases. ”I think it fits the statute of hazing,” he said.

The policy: The University of Houston's Policies and Procedures Manual clearly defines hazing as, "Any action taken or situation created which, regardless of intent or consent of the participants: Produces or is reasonably likely to produce, bodily harm or danger, mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, fright, humiliation or ridicule or otherwise compromises the dignity of an individual; Compels an individual to participate in any activity which is unlawful and/or contrary to the rules, policies and regulations of the University; Will, unreasonably or unusually, impair an individual’s academic efforts; and/or Occurs on or off campus.”

Flores making it clear: "It can come from a coach, from a trainer. It can come from an administrator. But it's the person at which it's a directed that makes it a criminal statute of hazing." When asked by Channel 2 Investigates if he would open a case as a prosecutor, Flores, without hesitation, said, “I would.”

5 things a UH player says about ‘punishment workout’

  1. "Instead we were punished for something that two people did that had nothing to do with everyone else."
  2. "He just told us to get up and go to the center of the field, and we all knew -- we have done up-downs before as a punishment -- so we all knew we were going to do up-downs and it was just a matter of how many."
  3. "I was just so mad and confused because, of course, I was going to keep going 'cause I'm scared, but I'm looking at everyone else and people were crying, barely pushing themselves off the ground."
  4. "Others are scared to speak out and I am, too, but someone has to."
  5. "I think I would completely take out all the coaches, put in brand-new ones, talk to the girls, see their concerns, see what they are looking for, what they want and try to, like, actually get to the bottom of what's been happening."

5 questions about rhabdomyolysis

WATCH: What is rhabdo?

Dr. Vijay Jotwani, who is with Houston Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and is also the former team physician for the Houston Dash, provided Channel 2 Investigates with a brief overview of rhabdo, a potentially deadly medical condition.

What is rhabdo?

“Rhabdo is muscle breakdown that comes from exerting your muscles too rigorously.”

What is the primary cause of rhabdo?

“Rhabdo is pushing your body past its normal limits. It can involve one muscle group or entire muscle groups.”

How does rhabdo attack your body?

“Your muscles are damaged in rhabdo and those damaged muscles are leaking chemicals in the blood that then damage the kidneys which can lead to kidney failure and even death.”

What is the recovery period for rhabdo?

“The recovery period for rhabdo is weeks and it involves being cared for by a physician through that process.”

What is the key takeaway?

“Rhabdo is preventable.”

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