Perspective | Do you remember Bishop Sycamore? A fake school shows its true scars in a new film. (2023)


6 min



Two years ago it was a strange and fleeting farce. A football scam turned into a joke and then into a disaster,all in front of an ESPN audience. Bishop Sycamore, a fake high school in Ohio full of players who are close to teenagers, made a mockery of what should have been one of those amazing national prep exhibition games where we completely ignore the exploitation of youth.

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As Bishop Sycamore—scammer with the initials B.S.!— lost 58-0 to prominent sports farm IMG Academy on Aug. 29, 2021, seemed like a silly moment in the midst of a pandemic. Several clothing companies were quick to perpetuate the scam.

I was thinking about rocking a Bishop Sycamore Centurions shirt before. Then I learned the rest of the story.

It's not that funny. When our laughter stopped, the tragedy continued. In the new HBO documentary "BS High," which debuted this week, the sobering story reveals the rampant villainy of Roy Johnson, a relentlessly amoral coach who keeps finding refuge in the cracks of the legal system; details the mental, physical and emotional trauma endured by players who arrived at Bishop Sycamore with dreams of playing college football; and refuses to absolve anyone, including IMG, of their sins in perpetuating a dangerously professionalized model for high school athletics.

The directors, Academy Award winners Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free, handle each complicated layer with the care that Johnson should have shown his players. They succeed where two similar types of modern documentaries have struggled. First, unlike other documentaries about the debacle, they weren't so seduced by the strangeness of the story that they softened the misery by overemphasizing the silliness. In addition, they have gone beyond recent topics.

From 2021: Bishop Sycamore, IMG and the high school football game that defrauded ESPN

The world of sports is oversaturated with insta-documentaries about people and things we still cover, and most of them seem like thin, unsatisfying vanity projects. However, "BS High" is a thorough indictment of the youth sports ecosystem, an empathetic look at players who were cheated, and a provocative study of Johnson's character.

When he agreed to more than 30 hours of interviews, Johnson may have thought he could talk his way into heroism. But the more Roe and Free studied Johnson, the more lies they uncovered.

"We didn't approach this thing to find a villain," Roe said in a recent interview. "He turned out to be an incorrigible liar. We worked pretty hard to fight for the deepest truths we could uncover.”

The complete picture is shocking. From the start, Johnson - who calls himself a "straightforward liar" - dances between charming and smarmy. At the beginning of the film, he asks the question: "Do I look like a fraud?"


He seems like a playful con artist. Part of his con is the blunt way he admits he has flaws. Before the film began, Roe and Free introduced themselves to Johnson during a FaceTime call, and in that initial conversation, Johnson had already talked about how he defrauded the hotel.

In the 95-minute documentary, there are allegations of Johnson forging a check to pay for accommodation, taking out Covid-19 loans in the name of his players, whipping a homeless man with a belt and stepping on geese to prove his favor to the players. The film shows his history of accusations and accusations of domestic violence.

He's the last person who should be leading young people, yet he manipulated being called "Coach" and figured out how to get his team on ESPN. Most scammers prefer to cheat in the dark. His greatest con was to steal the glory while everyone was watching. There was no way the plan would succeed, but he continued Bishop Sycamore's trickery for several seasons. And that's after he did something similar with a team called Christian of Faith Academy.


Despite all of his misdeeds, Johnson escaped major punishment because the rules and laws aren't precise enough to explain a man who would devise a plan to create a high school that didn't have a school, with high school students who weren't really of age, and then register it under a church for protection.

"He thinks he's bulletproof," Roe said.

The system made him feel that way. In its most thought-provoking narrative decision, “BS High” often juxtaposes IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore, presenting them as two sides of the same troubled coin. Inequality becomes a problem. IMG, a boarding school and athletic training laboratory in Bradenton, Florida,sold in April for $1.25 billion.

It's just a different kind of hustle to Johnson. He also wanted to exploit high school sports for his financial gain, but he exploited the poor, not the privileged. Few seemed to care until IMG needed an opponent and ESPN needed more big-game television inventory.


"I hope that parents who see this will realize the need to pay more attention to the system and what it's doing to their children," Free said. “There were so many heartbreaking stories. That was one of the hardest things for me, watching a young person in real time face emotions that he never wanted to face."

As of 2021: Bishop Sycamore is the headliner, but the out-of-control prep sports industry is a joke

When the documentary debuted in June at the Tribeca Film Festival, former Bishop Sycamore players were invited. Johnson was not. So the coach bought a ticket and showed up accompanied by two bodyguards. Free recalled the story of Johnson's arrival. There was drama because his ticket was not valid for entry. Rather than risk the scene, the producer gave Johnson a spare ticket, and he took his seat.

During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Roe described Johnson as an "unreliable" subject. And he could hear Johnson yelling from his balcony seat, "Ouch!"


That discomfort, for the cheater and the players he cheated, remains in the absence of legal responsibility. “BS High” was left to exact the justice Ohio State could not deliver after the Bishop Sycamore investigation. The film exposed raw truths, but the ending is elusive.

"This movie is the most fun when you let Roy be funny, funny," Roe said. “But we left 80 percent of Roy's jokes on the floor because that humor was manipulation. We sure as [expletive] make it clear, when you hear from the team, that many of his actions bordered on evil. And the state has failed. We wanted to make sure that the film will leave you unsettled. Roy told you he'd get away with it and he told you he'd be back. This is a story that most people would have laughed at two years ago, but we are outraged that this has happened."

After Johnson's brief stint at the festival, Roe said the coach sent him a private message on social media expressing his appreciation for the film. Despite looking like a pathological liar, he seems delighted. The tragedy continues.

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