American football scandal in 2021

Bishop Sycamore High School
,

Ohio

United States

Type Online
Enrollment 1[1]
Color(s) Black and white
   
Athletics conference Texas Christian Athletic League (until 2021)[2]
Team name Centurions

The Bishop Sycamore Centurions were an American football team based in Columbus, Ohio. They purported to be the high school football team of Bishop Sycamore High School. The high school was advertised as an athletic sports training academy; however, after a blowout loss to IMG Academy that was televised on ESPN on August 29, 2021, there was increased scrutiny and investigation into the school’s existence. This investigation included uncovering the identities and credentials of the team’s administration. A former executive for the Ohio High School Athletic Association came forward to say that after three years of investigating the school, he was convinced that it was a “scam”.[3] A report published in December 2021 by the Ohio Department of Education concluded that the school was found to be operating as a scam.[1]

The Centurions suffered lopsided losses in all six of their 2020 games, yet their lack of success did not hinder their ability to schedule marquee games against elite preparatory and high schools. The televised game against IMG Academy was the second time they had played the school, following a similar 56–6 loss in 2020. Their 2021 schedule was ranked the fourth most difficult of any high school team in the United States.[citation needed] In the wake of the scandal surrounding the game, Bishop Sycamore’s remaining opponents canceled their games against the team.

Pre-scandal background[edit]

Former player Aaron Boyd said in an interview with Complex that athletes were recruited under the premise of the school being the “IMG of the Midwest”.[4] However, many of their student-athletes were older than high-school age, and there was no real campus. Instead, athletes were housed in a hotel for five months, with the only schooling being one visit to a public library. The school also struggled to maintain coaches as 80% of the coaching staff quit during the season and the team was left with just two coaches and one mother of a player. The players were also not provided with food and some players resorted to stealing from supermarkets to eat.[4]

Complex also conducted an anonymous interview with two former Bishop Sycamore students. They revealed that then head coach, Leroy Johnson, recruited the students with the prospect of “practicing at Ohio State‘s facilities”.[5] In reality, they held practice outside of an apartment complex that housed students at Ohio State. The team also did not have athletic trainers, which resulted in the athletes playing injured. The apartments housing the students frequently evicted them after Johnson failed to pay rent. Many players already graduated from high school and there “were four or five kids that were 20, 21, [and] had children of their own”.[5] A number of players had legal issues; at one point so many players had active arrest warrants that the team could not fly to away games. One player actually joined the team immediately after being released from jail. The team also struggled with camaraderie; a former player claimed there were at least five fights at every practice.[5]

Christians of Faith Academy[edit]

The school was originally founded as Christians of Faith Academy (COF) in 2018.[6][7] A federal investigation was opened to look into COF for use of counterfeit currency, credit and debit card fraud, computer fraud and other potential crimes.[8] It was shut down after just one season and became Bishop Sycamore.[4] Leroy Johnson, the former head coach, claims that they had ties to the Third District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and had plans to build a “massive campus”.[8] Johnson was business-development director for the Richard Allen Group, the financial arm of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.[7] Johnson later used COF and the church’s name during his attempts to sell life-insurance.[9] The AME church has denied having any connection with the school,[8] but an investigation by The Columbus Dispatch found a trail of emails and bank statements that documented the connections between the AME and the school, which was initially established in an effort to provide opportunities to disadvantaged youth. Whatever ties the AME had to the school were severed by fall 2018.[10]

As Christians of Faith, the team played its inaugural season in 2018; out of 12 scheduled games, the team won two, lost eight and forfeited two, including its first scheduled game against IMG Academy.[10]

YouthBuild[edit]

Bishop Sycamore tried to associate with YouthBuild Columbus Community School. However, when Bishop Sycamore tried to promote themselves as working with YouthBuild, YouthBuild decided to part ways and, eventually, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bishop Sycamore that the two organizations are not to be affiliated with one another. In 2019, there were concerns that YouthBuild were fielding players who were older than 18 or had otherwise used up their four years of high school eligibility.[6] These concerns, which are against the rules of both the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and multiple state high school associations, prompted Point Pleasant High School in West Virginia to cancel their game against them out of liability concerns.[6][11]

2019–2020[edit]

The football team known as Bishop Sycamore first played in 2019, during which they went 4–5 against a variety of smaller schools, none of them located in Ohio.[3] On August 27, 2019, they were removed from playing against Mainland High School in the Freedom Bowl, a private football tournament in Milton, Georgia, for “breach of contract” following failure to submit a roster and book hotel rooms in time.[12]

In 2020, Bishop Sycamore offered online classes through an organization called Graduation Alliance, but the classes were ended after five months as a result of Bishop Sycamore failing to provide payments for the organization’s services.[13] Meanwhile, the team exploited cancellations stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to land matches against marquee teams needing to fill their schedule; they went 0–6 that year and were outscored 227–42.[14] Their schedule consisted of high school powerhouses like Massillon Washington High School, McCallie School, St. Edward High School, Saint Ignatius High School, and IMG Academy;[15] IMG Academy defeated Bishop Sycamore 56–6.[16] NBC News noted that such elite high school programs struggle to find opponents from outside their league or geographic area, as few were willing to travel long distances to face a far superior opponent. Bishop Sycamore likely had little difficulty convincing teams to schedule a game.[17]

2021 season[edit]

Bishop Sycamore came into the 2021 season with the fourth toughest schedule in the nation.[18] They also tried to raise $20,000 to fund the school’s football program via GoFundMe, but they had raised only $140.[19] Prior to their highly publicized 2021 matchup against IMG Academy, Bishop Sycamore had played two games during the 2021 season, losing their first game by a score of 38–0 to Archbishop Hoban High School on August 19, 2021.[20] Bishop Sycamore had then played a second game just two days before playing IMG Academy against Sto-Rox High School on August 27, 2021, which they lost 19–7.[21]

Coach Leroy Johnson[edit]

Roy Johnson
2019-2021 Bishop Sycamore
2018 Christians of Faith Academy
Overall 0-9 (high school)

Leroy Johnson Jr., also known as Roy Johnson, is an American football coach who most recently served as the head coach of the Bishop Sycamore Centurions.

During 2018, Johnson was signed to the Christians of Faith Academy as the athletic director and assistant coach. During the end of the season, the team collapsed due to financial reasons.[22] In 2020, Johnson rebranded the Christians of Faith Academy to Bishop Sycamore. On August 29, 2021, the team played IMG Academy on ESPN but lost 58–0 and put Johnson on the hot seat of getting fired.[23] After the game, Johnson came under heavy scrutiny. It was revealed that there was an active arrest warrant for Johnson relating to “fraudulent misrepresentation, conversion, and unjust enrichment”. Johnson also faced a civil lawsuit filed by ARN Hospitality, which claimed he owed them $110,685 for not paying any portion of the bill from the hotel where the players were housed. He faces similar lawsuits for failure to pay from a busing company and a football helmet manufacturer. Johnson has also taken out a loan of $100,000 but never repaid the bank.[24]

Former athletes at Bishop Sycamore also revealed that Johnson’s football play calls all came from Madden NFL video games and that the team attacked a homeless man for attempting to break into Johnson’s car. The only class offered to students was a religious class taught by Johnson.

Bishop Sycamore gained national attention when they played high school football powerhouse IMG Academy on August 29, 2021. The game was aired on ESPN as the finale of the 2021 ESPN High School Kickoff series, a weekend of high school football showcases televised by ESPN’s networks featuring prominent teams, nationally ranked prospects, and players that have committed to playing Division I FBS college football. The games were booked by the company Paragon Marketing, which has historically served as a partner for ESPN’s high school events.[23][25] Paragon was unable to find a team willing to play IMG, so they outsourced their efforts to a man named Joe Maimon, who runs a company called Prep Gridiron Logistics.[26] Maimon contacted 200 schools to play IMG, and Bishop Sycamore was the only school willing to play against them.[26] The game was expected by many to be a game between two elite programs but was far from competitive.[16][27] IMG Academy was dominant throughout the entire game, winning 58–0 in their first shutout since 2019.[28]

As the lopsided contest ensued, play-by-play announcer Anish Shroff and color commentator Tom Luginbill began to question the legitimacy of the Centurions on-air. They revealed that ESPN had been unable to verify claims that its roster contained NCAA Division I college prospects, and they could not find any mention of Bishop Sycamore or its players in any recruiting databases.[27] Shroff wondered how Bishop Sycamore was booked for a nationally televised game against IMG—the “most talented prep team in the country”.[29] To Shroff’s mind, the game appeared to be such a mismatch that “there’s got to be a point now where you’re worried about health and safety”.[27] Luginbill agreed, saying that the game could potentially get “dangerous” due to Bishop Sycamore’s apparent lack of depth.[29]

One member of the ESPN production team likened the game to “four and five star recruits against a JV team”. After IMG scored 23 points in the first quarter, organizers for the event spoke to Johnson about calling the game via mercy rule, but he refused. Johnson also refused to allow a running clock even when it was apparent the game was out of hand.[26] It subsequently emerged that ESPN officials had greenlit the broadcast despite Bishop Sycamore being slow to provide rudimentary information about the school and the team, contrary to longstanding practice for high schools appearing on the network. For instance, Johnson did not show up for a scheduled virtual production meeting two days before the game. ESPN only got a fact sheet about the school hours before the game. Several members of ESPN’s production staff thought something was amiss when several names on Bishop Sycamore’s roster did not check out, but the game went ahead as scheduled.[26][23]

After the game, a Fairfield Inn & Suites, where Bishop Sycamore stayed while staying in Canton, accused the team of attempting to use two invalid checks for $3,596 in order to pay for 25 rooms. The team was also charged $750 for room damages. The Canton Police Department announced they were investigating the school for forgery.[30]

Aftermath[edit]

Coach Leroy Johnson was fired on August 31 in the aftermath of the IMG Academy game,[31] with founder Andre Peterson taking over the operation. Peterson maintained the operation was legitimate, noting that he had enrolled his own son in the school.[32] However, former players for Johnson have said, “He’s never gonna leave that program. He might say he’s not taking the coaching job. He might lie to make the public get off his back. But Roy is not gonna get out of that. He’s gonna be in their ears at all times.” Johnson was replaced by Tyren Jackson as the school’s head football coach. In an interview with Columbus TV station WCMH-TV following his hiring, Jackson acknowledged that the organization was not a school and should not have identified as one:

We are not a school. That’s not what Bishop Sycamore is, and I think that’s what the biggest misconception about us was, and that was our fault. Because that was a mistake on paperwork.[33]

In the same interview, Jackson stated the team was still hoping to schedule more games in 2021, noting that the team’s newfound notoriety would ensure that the first opponent who agreed to play Bishop Sycamore would make “national news” by doing so.

Following the game, fans and media outlets began to question whether Bishop Sycamore was a real high school. During the 2020–21 school year, the Ohio Department of Education listed Bishop Sycamore as a “non-chartered, non-tax supported school”; the school was not listed at all for the 2021–22 year.[27] The state listed a P.O. box as its mailing address, and its physical address as being a sports training facility in Columbus.[27] The Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus had no record of any bishop named Sycamore, nor any parochial schools by that name in their diocese, throughout their history.[27][34] The school’s website contained blank “About Us” and “Staff” pages.[27] The school is not part of the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA);[27] it instead plays in the Texas Christian Athletic League, which includes the team in its Division 6A, a “national division” open to teams outside Texas (by late October, the TCAL had dropped Bishop Sycamore from the league).[35] In 2020, the school claimed an enrollment of only three students.[9] Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced that the Ohio Department of Education would be opening an investigation into the school’s educational operations. In the wake of that investigation, the three remaining schools still slated to play Bishop Sycamore called off the games.[17][36] The OHSAA later stated that, even if Bishop Sycamore were not a bona fide high school, teams in their jurisdiction would still be allowed to schedule and play them, as no rule in the OHSAA bylaws requires OHSAA teams’ opponents to be affiliated with any high school. Such games would be considered exhibition games for the purposes of record keeping.[37] The investigation conducted by the Ohio Department of Education into Bishop Sycamore was released on December 17, 2021, and found that the school failed to meet educational standards, failed to provide a physical location for classes to meet, and did not employ any teachers. The report went on to say Bishop Sycamore was likely a scam and that they recommend the Ohio Attorney General look into possible legal action against the school’s administrators.[1]

Player safety concerns were also raised, after it was discovered that Bishop Sycamore had played a Friday night game just two days earlier against Sto-Rox High School in Pennsylvania (which they lost 19–7). The game featured many of the same players as their game against IMG Academy.[14] Rashid Ghazi, president of Paragon Marketing, said that the game would have been canceled had anyone known Bishop Sycamore was already playing a game the preceding Friday.[27] After the game, ESPN released a statement placing responsibility for the incident on Paragon, saying that Paragon had given assurances “that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward”.[38] Duncanville High School in Duncanville, Texas, originally stated that it intended on following through with its scheduled game against Bishop Sycamore on September 10 despite the allegations of impropriety,[39] but they later decided to cancel the game and seek a new opponent.[40]

Accusations of being a scam[edit]

Ben Ferree, the former assistant director of Officiating and Sport Management at the OHSAA, told Awful Announcing that he spent “the better part of three years” investigating Bishop Sycamore and its previous incarnation, COF Academy.[3] He first looked into the school when he noticed that it played a number of OHSAA member schools. Standard practice called for Ferree to contact any non-OHSAA member school to verify that school’s enrollment for purposes of playoff seeding. However, Ferree grew suspicious when COF Academy claimed to have 750 boys on its roll; according to Ferree, if a newly opened school in the state capital had that many boys, he and other OHSAA officials would have known about it. After unsuccessful attempts to verify that COF Academy was what it claimed to be, the OHSAA declared that COF Academy was not a legitimate school, which ultimately led to its charter being revoked in 2018. Ferree ultimately concluded that Bishop Sycamore existed as a money-making venture for Johnson. He told Awful Announcing that Johnson would agree to play powerhouse high schools, provided that the school paid for Bishop Sycamore’s travel expenses. However, Johnson would pocket the travel stipend for personal use.[3]

Documentaries[edit]

Comedian Kevin Hart announced that his production company HartBeat Productions, Complex Networks and others would be producing a docuseries which will cover “how the school and this game fooled the world and became front page news”.[41]

Former NFL player Michael Strahan‘s production company, SMAC Entertainment, announced in September 2021 that he had secured the rights to interview Leroy Johnson for a documentary about Bishop Sycamore.[42] SMAC later joined forces with Two Distant Strangers directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, Adam McKay‘s Hyperobject Industries, Spencer Paysinger‘s Moore Street Productions, Boat Rocker Media, and The Athletic to produce an HBO Sports documentary titled BS High, which was announced as being in production in August 2022, and is expected to premiere in 2023.[43]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Chen, David (December 17, 2021). “How the Bishop Sycamore Football Team Dashed Dreams”. The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2021.
  2. ^ Nelson, Haley (August 30, 2021). “ABC 6 investigates ‘Bishop Sycamore;’ Columbus team that lost big on ESPN”. ABC6. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  3. ^ a b c d Koo, Ben (August 31, 2021). “Exclusive: Former OHSAA investigator shares frustrations that schools ignored his warnings about Bishop Sycamore red flags”. Awful Announcing. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  4. ^ a b c Olojede, Zion (August 30, 2021). “A Former Bishop Sycamore Football Player Exposes the Dark Secrets of the Program”. Complex.
  5. ^ a b c Olojede, Zion (September 1, 2021). “Two Former Bishop Sycamore Players Expose Roy Johnson’s Alleged Wrongdoings”. Complex. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  6. ^ a b c Schaad, Tom; Bumbaca, Chris; Reyes, Lorenzo (September 2, 2021). “Before Bishop Sycamore, there was Christians of Faith Academy, along with lawsuits and unanswered questions”. USA Today. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  7. ^ a b King, Andrew (August 6, 2018). “Out of thin air: COF Academy has football schedule, little else”. ThisWeek Community News. Archived from the original on August 7, 2018. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  8. ^ a b c King, Andrew (March 11, 2019). “Students became collateral damage in COF Academy-AME Church saga”. The Columbus Dispatch.
  9. ^ a b Bush, Bill (August 31, 2021). ‘As far as I know, none of the kids did any school.’ Questions mount over legitimacy of Bishop Sycamore”. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  10. ^ a b King, Andrew. “Documented Relationship: Emails Reveal COF Academy’s Connection to AME Church, Mixed signals: COF Academy’s tangled tale”. COF Academy – ThisWeek News. Archived from the original on August 30, 2021. Retrieved September 2, 2021.
  11. ^ Walters, Bryan (September 23, 2019). “Point’s game with YouthBuild cancelled”. The Daily Sentinel. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  12. ^ Boyle, Chris (August 27, 2019). “Mainland’s trip to Georgia’s Freedom Bowl canceled after opponent drops ball”. The Daytona Beach News-Journal. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  13. ^ “Bishop Sycamore update: Academic partner denies relationship with “school”. WKYC. September 2, 2021. Archived from the original on September 5, 2021. Retrieved September 4, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Bengel, Chris; AlBaroudi, Wajih (August 31, 2021). “Bishop Sycamore football controversy: Eye-opening details emerge after supposed high school’s ugly loss to IMG”. CBS Sports. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  15. ^ “Bishop Sycamore Football (2020) Schedule”. MaxPreps. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  16. ^ a b Clarke, Mary (August 29, 2021). “Here’s how ESPN got duped into airing a terrible high school football team”. For The Win. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  17. ^ a b de Bruijin, Eline; Brunner, Susanne (August 31, 2021). “Duncanville H.S. football cancels game against Bishop Sycamore, team accused of misleading ESPN”. NBC News. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  18. ^ Poff, Zack (July 29, 2021). “High school football: Ten toughest schedules for 2021 season”. MaxPreps. Retrieved September 7, 2021.
  19. ^ Sutelan, Edward (August 31, 2021). “Is Bishop Sycamore a legit high school football program? IMG Academy’s ESPN opponent explained”. Sporting News. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  20. ^ Isley, Ryan (August 20, 2021). “No. 2 Archbishop Hoban rolls over Bishop Sycamore in unofficial season opener, 38–0”. Cleveland.com. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  21. ^ Harlan, Chris (August 28, 2021). “Big-play defense leads Sto-Rox past Bishop Sycamore at Wolvarena”. TribHSSN.com. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  22. ^ “Students became collateral damage in COF Academy-AME Church saga”. dispatch.com.
  23. ^ a b c Koo, Ben (August 30, 2021). “We learned more about how Bishop Sycamore ended up playing on ESPN, and it’s only getting shadier”. Awful Announcing. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  24. ^ Kinsey, Joe (August 30, 2021). “Bishop Sycamore Head Coach Faces Active Warrant, Civil Lawsuits Pile Up”. OutKick. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  25. ^ Elchlepp, Kimberly (July 28, 2021). “The GEICO ESPN High School Football Kickoff Returns for 12th Year, August 26–29”. ESPN Press Room U.S. (Press release). Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  26. ^ a b c d Strauss, Ben (August 31, 2021). “Bishop Sycamore, IMG and the high school football game that duped ESPN”. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  27. ^ a b c d e f g h i Johnson, Bailey (August 31, 2021). “What is Bishop Sycamore? What we know about mysterious football team on ESPN”. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  28. ^ Poff, Zack (August 29, 2021). “High school football: No. 2 IMG Academy blanks Bishop Sycamore 58–0 in season opener”. MaxPreps.com. Archived from the original on August 29, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  29. ^ a b Bucholtz, Andrew (August 29, 2021). “ESPN announcers blasted Bishop Sycamore in IMG-Bishop Sycamore blowout”. Awful Announcing. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  30. ^ Steineck, Lori (September 1, 2021). “After legitimacy allegations, Bishop Sycamore team accused of stiffing Canton hotel”. The Repository. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  31. ^ Bumbaca, Chris (August 31, 2021). “Roy Johnson, coach of Bishop Sycamore high school football team, is let go”. USA Today. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  32. ^ Bumbaca, Chris (August 31, 2021). “Bishop Sycamore director on ESPN game controversy: Football program is not a ‘scam’. USA Today. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  33. ^ Schad, Tom (September 6, 2021). “New Bishop Sycamore coach: ‘We are not a school. That’s not what Bishop Sycamore is’. USA Today. Retrieved September 6, 2021.
  34. ^ Dator, James (August 30, 2021). “How a shady high school football team faked its way onto ESPN”. SB Nation. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  35. ^ List of schools in the Texas Christian Athletic League, retrieved September 8, 2021.
  36. ^ Li, David (September 1, 2021). “Mysterious Ohio high school football team’s season appears to be done in wake of state probe”. NBC News. Retrieved September 1, 2021.
  37. ^ Johnson, Bailey (September 7, 2021). “OHSAA says schools still allowed to play Bishop Sycamore”. The Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved September 8, 2021.
  38. ^ “Ohio-based high school football team Bishop Sycamore faces questions about legitimacy”. ESPN. August 31, 2021. Archived from the original on August 31, 2021. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  39. ^ Riddle, Greg; Hoyt, Joseph (August 30, 2021). “Duncanville still scheduled to play Ohio’s Bishop Sycamore — the team that duped ESPN”. Dallas Morning News. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  40. ^ de Bruijin, Eline; Brunner, Susanne (August 31, 2021). “Duncanville H.S. football cancels game against Bishop Sycamore, team accused of misleading ESPN”. WFAA.com. Retrieved August 31, 2021.
  41. ^ Blanchet, Brenton (September 3, 2021). “Bishop Sycamore Docuseries Coming From Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions, Complex Networks, and More”. Complex Networks. Retrieved September 3, 2021.
  42. ^ Porter, Rick (September 8, 2021). “Michael Strahan to Produce Bishop Sycamore Football Scandal Documentary (Exclusive)”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved September 8, 2021.
  43. ^ Carey, Matthew (August 29, 2022). “HBO Launches Production On ‘BS High,’ Doc About Football Team From “Fake” School That Got Drubbed On National TV”. Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 29, 2022.
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