Perspective | Remember Bishop Sycamore? In new film, fake school shows its real scars. (2023)


6 min



Two years ago, it was a strange and fleeting farce. A football con turned into a joke and then a catastrophe, all before an ESPN audience. Bishop Sycamore, a fake Ohio high school full of teenage-adjacent players, made a mockery of what was supposed to be one of those riveting national prep showcase games in which we completely ignore the youth exploitation.

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As Bishop Sycamore — a scam with the initials B.S.! — took a 58-0 loss to prominent sports farm IMG Academy on Aug. 29, 2021, it felt like a silly moment amid a pandemic haze. Several apparel companies were quick to immortalize the deception.

I used to think about rocking a Bishop Sycamore Centurions T-shirt. Then I learned the rest of the story.

It’s not so hilarious. When our laughing stopped, the tragedy continued. In the new HBO documentary “BS High,” which debuted this week, the sobering tale reveals the rampant maleficent behavior of Roy Johnson, the unapologetically amoral coach who keeps finding cover in the crevices 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 declines 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 every complicated layer with the kind of care that Johnson should have shown his players. They succeed where two similar types of modern documentaries have struggled. First, unlike other debacle docs, they were not so seduced by the oddity of the story that they softened the misery with an overemphasis on the goofiness. In addition, they transcended the recency of their subject matter.

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

The world of sports is oversaturated with insta-documentaries about people and things we’re still processing, and most of them come across as thin, unsatisfying vanity projects. “BS High,” however, is a thorough indictment of the youth sports ecosystem, an empathetic look at the players who were duped and a provocative character study of Johnson.

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 looked into Johnson, the more lies they exposed.

“We didn’t approach this thing to find a villain,” Roe said in a recent conversation. “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 jarring. From the beginning, Johnson — who calls himself “an honest liar” — dances between charming and smarmy. Early in the film, he raises a question: “Do I look like a con artist?”


He seems like a playful hustler. Part of his con is the straightforward manner with which he admits to being flawed. Before starting the film, Roe and Free introduced themselves to Johnson during a FaceTime call, and in that initial conversation, Johnson was already breaking down how he defrauded a hotel.

In the 95-minute documentary, there are allegations of Johnson forging a check to pay for lodging, taking out covid-19 relief loans in his players’ names, whipping a homeless man with a belt and driving over geese to prove a point to his players. The film shows his history of domestic violence charges and accusations.

He’s the last person who should be leading young people, yet he manipulated his way to being called “Coach” and figured out how to get his team on ESPN. Most swindlers prefer to swindle in the dark. His ultimate con was to steal glory while everyone was watching. There was no way the plan was going to work, yet he kept up the Bishop Sycamore ruse for multiple seasons. And that was after he had done something similar with a team called Christians of Faith Academy.


Despite all the misdeeds, Johnson has evaded major punishment because the rules and laws aren’t specific enough to account for a man who would devise a scheme to create a high school that had no school, with high-schoolers who really weren’t of age, and then register it under a church for protection.

“He thinks he’s bulletproof,” Roe said.

The system has made him feel that way. In its most thought-provoking storytelling decision, “BS High” pits IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore against each other often, presenting them as two sides of the same problematic coin. The inequity becomes the issue. IMG, a boarding school and sports training lab in Bradenton, Fla., sold for $1.25 billion in April.

To Johnson, that’s simply a different kind of hustle. He also wanted to use high school sports to his financial benefit, but he exploited the underprivileged rather than the privileged. Few seemed to care until IMG needed an opponent and ESPN needed more big-game television inventory.


“I hope parents who see this will realize the need to pay closer 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, having to watch a young person in real time confront emotions he never wanted to confront.”

From 2021: Bishop Sycamore is the punchline, but an out-of-control prep sports industry is the joke

When the documentary debuted in June at the Tribeca Film Festival, the 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 wasn’t valid for entry. Rather than risk a scene, a producer handed Johnson a spare ticket, and he took his seat.

During a Q&A session after the screening, Roe described Johnson as an “untrustworthy” subject. And he could hear Johnson shout from a balcony seat, “Ouch!”


That discomfort, for the con man and the players he conned, lingers in the absence of legal accountability. “BS High” was left to pursue the justice that the state of Ohio couldn’t deliver after its Bishop Sycamore investigation. The film uncovered raw truths, but closure remains elusive.

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

After Johnson’s brief outburst at the festival, Roe said the coach sent him a private social media message expressing gratitude for the film. Despite looking like a pathological liar, it seems he’s thrilled. The tragedy continues.

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