ESPN Hornswoggled Into Nationally Televised Disaster

Controversy arose when ESPN aired a blowout high school football game between powerhouse IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore — a high school with apparently fabricated credentials and minimal infrastructure.

With about seven minutes remaining in the second quarter and a 30-0 showing on the scoreboard, ESPN commentators Anish Shroff and Tom Luginbill had seemingly had enough. In what was supposed to be the compelling finale of ESPN’s 2021 High School Kickoff series, a lopsided annihilation was taking place at Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio.

On one side was perennial high school powerhouse IMG Academy from Florida, widely considered to be the best collection of high school football talent in the country, and on the other was Bishop Sycamore High School from Ohio, a self-described “online-only charter school” that came into the game completely unknown.

The High School Kickoff is usually intended to be a final celebration of elite high school football talent before the beginning of the college football and NFL seasons, as well as an opportunity for players to get recognized on a national stage. But this year, the obvious mismatch between IMG and Bishop Sycamore created an uncomfortable viewing experience that even the announcers couldn’t ignore.

“This has not been a fair fight,” Shroff said over the broadcast as IMG broke off yet another long run. “There’s gotta be a point now … where you worry about [player] health and safety.” The announcers also noted that, although Bishop Sycamore claimed to have a number of Division I prospects, ESPN could not verify the identities of any of the players in their databases. The game eventually and mercifully ended, with a final score of 58-0 in favor of IMG.

So how exactly did arguably the best high school football team in the country schedule a game against a no-name program that was ostensibly lying about the credentials of its roster, and how did the game end up on national television? The answer lies in a number of missteps by multiple parties at various levels of the game’s production. But all roads lead back to Bishop Sycamore’s Head Coach Roy Johnson.

Bishop Sycamore is not Johnson’s first venture into high school football, and it may not be his biggest failure either. Johnson founded Christians of Faith (COF) Academy in 2018. The school, which lacked an academic building and any athletic facilities, disbanded after just one year and was littered with corrupt practices. Despite this, Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore the following year with business partner Andre Peterson. Based in Columbus, Ohio, the school promotes itself as a top football program on par with other powerhouse schools in the nation, though it is clear that Johnson had greatly underestimated the costs of running such a program. Without the benefits and amenities that established schools are able to provide their students, Bishop Sycamore relies upon recruiting players who are seeking a last chance to get noticed by colleges. The end result is a roster composed of post-graduate players who didn’t academically qualify for college, or players, high school-age or otherwise, who have exhausted all other options (at least one player on Bishop Sycamore’s roster has appeared on a junior college roster in the past). The school lacks any permanent infrastructure — players either live in apartment complexes furnished with air mattresses or are forced to move from hotel to hotel to find a place to sleep at night.

In an interview for The Athletic in the week following the IMG game, Bishop Sycamore Quarterback Trillian Harris walks through an average day as a Bishop Sycamore student: after a workout from 5:00 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and a practice from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., students stop back at their apartments to shower before returning to the athletic facilities to take classes on their computers or phones through Excel Academy, an online school. Though Harris speaks highly of the school and of Johnson, many have begun to question the school’s practices and its overall validity. Bishop Sycamore initially attempted to associate itself with YouthBuild Columbus Community School, a dropout prevention academy based in Ohio, though the YBCCS website currently has a disclaimer that reads “YBCCS is in no way affiliated with Bishop Sycamore” at the top of their homepage. Moreover, the address listed on Bishop Sycamore’s website was the address for a library at Franklin University — the website has since been taken down. Following the ESPN broadcast, far more speculation has arisen regarding Bishop Sycamore’s legitimacy, and the Ohio Department of Education has been directed to investigate by Governor Mike DeWine.

Though his rosters lacked talent compared to their opponents, Johnson has been able to portray his teams as premier programs in order to schedule big games (and massive defeats) against top schools. Christians of Faith Academy was actually scheduled to play IMG in October 2018, but after COF Academy asked IMG to pay for the team’s travel costs, IMG canceled the game, feeling wary of their opponent’s legitimacy. Much of IMG’s staff has turned over since then, largely due to the pandemic, and IMG played Bishop Sycamore in October 2020, where IMG won 56-6. This blowout did not garner nearly the same media coverage that this year’s game received.

In 2020, Bishop Sycamore finished with a record of 0-6, playing five of Ohio’s best football programs in addition to IMG, and was outscored by a margin of 227-42. This year’s schedule boasted a similarly impressive group of schools, though all of their remaining games have been canceled since the game against IMG aired. What is most peculiar about this year’s game is that Bishop Sycamore had played against Sto-Rox High the Friday before their scheduled game with IMG, meaning they played two games in the span of just three days. That Friday game ended in a 19-7 defeat for Bishop Sycamore, but it does not appear on the team’s official schedule. When asked about the game, Johnson claimed that they field multiple teams, but the film of Friday’s game shows the same players in the same positions as during the IMG game on Sunday.

Since the conclusion of the IMG game, Johnson has been reportedly fired by Peterson, who serves as the school’s director. Ben Ferree, a former investigator for the Ohio High School Athletic Association who has looked into Johnson’s ventures in the past, believes that the school’s founders were able to profit off of scheduling big-time games. To do this, Johnson would claim that his team has the talent to be a competitive program in the future, making it seem worthwhile for established programs to play them. Because they are a new program, however, Bishop Sycamore requests that these other schools pay for their travel expenses, which Ferree believes that Johnson and his partners simply pocket for themselves.

Johnson’s practices certainly seem shady, and he is no stranger to confrontations with the law. Along with an outstanding warrant in Delaware County, Ohio for failure to pay a fine that resulted from his guilty plea in a March 2020 assault case, Johnson faces a number of lawsuits. He reportedly owes a Baymont Inn in Delaware, Ohio over $110,000 after his COF Academy team spent three months living there in 2018 — the hotel’s management sued Johnson, but the case was dismissed without prejudice (meaning it can be refiled) in November 2019 after multiple failures to serve Johnson with the suit. Johnson and former Ohio State football player and local television personality Jay Richardson are also defendants in a 2018 civil suit filed by First Merchants Bank, alleging that the pair obtained a $100,000 loan by misrepresenting themselves as officers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church — the church was reportedly affiliated with COF Academy. The loan has yet to be repaid, and a hearing is set for Nov. 18 to determine the damages. Johnson and Richardson are also named in a 2018 lawsuit filed in Franklin County, Ohio by Heartland Bank attempting to recover damages from a defaulted $92,020 loan used to purchase a 2017 Range Rover. Richardson denies any involvement in Bishop Sycamore, but his name appears on the court documents and can be seen on Bishop Sycamore’s original logo. More recently, it was reported that Johnson paid for 25 rooms at a Fairfield Inn in Canton, Ohio for the IMG game with two invalid checks totaling $3,596.

Given the absurdity surrounding Bishop Sycamore, it seems unlikely that a school with IMG’s prestige would even consider scheduling a game. It seems even more unlikely that ESPN would decide to air such a game. Yet that was exactly what happened thanks to the services provided by Prep Gridiron Logistics and Paragon Marketing Group.

Prep Gridiron Logistics is an online scheduling system for high schools across the country looking for games — it aids in creating big-time matchups. The company’s founder, Joe Maimone, is also the vice president of sales at Billboard Magazine. He is a huge football fan and considers Prep Gridiron Logistics to be his passion project. The service currently has about 160 clients, who are mainly elite programs like IMG, though Maimone admits he often helps smaller teams gain exposure, and he stated that he believed in Bishop Sycamore’s mission of helping prospects get a second chance. When IMG approached Maimone, Bishop Sycamore was the only program in Ohio willing to play, and so the game was set.

Rashid Ghazi, president of Paragon Marketing Group, takes responsibility for having the game air on ESPN. Paragon aids in the process of matching high school teams together and partners with ESPN to produce broadcasts of games. Ghazi was the individual who pitched the idea of broadcasting the game between Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s and Virginia's Oak Hill Academy in December 2002, a game that featured LeBron James as a high school phenom. Ghazi has publicly taken full responsibility for the Bishop Sycamore broadcast, stating that the vetting process and issues with the matchup itself are “100 percent on Paragon.” He went even further, stating, “as the guy who founded the ESPN relationship and the president of the company, it’s really 100 percent on me.” ESPN released their own statement and essentially placed all the blame on Paragon, though people likely won’t remember the marketing company that packaged the game — they’ll remember the media giant that had the final say in broadcasting it.

A recent interview with newly appointed Head Coach Tyren Jackson has only made the situation even more puzzling. Though Bishop Sycamore is designated as a “non-charter, non-tax supported school” by the state of Ohio, Jackson stated, “We do not offer curriculum. 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.” Jackson instead describes Bishop Sycamore as a “post-grad football academy.”

The future of Bishop Sycamore and its football team is certainly in question, though the team’s Twitter account has remained active and is looking to fill its scheduling vacancies. Though unclear who is behind the reigns, the team has launched an online store selling Bishop Sycamore merchandise, likely the last remnant of the school’s messy legacy.