The ‘Evil’ High School Football Coach Who Scammed His Way to ESPN
Bishop Sycamore boasted the most ideal acronym imaginable, given that the school was nothing but a bullshit scam.
Claiming to be a football academy that was both affiliated with a high school (which it wasn’t) and could get kids into a Division I college program (which it couldn’t), Bishop Sycamore turned out to be a fraud, and on Aug. 29, 2021, it was exposed as such when its team was embarrassingly blown out by high school powerhouse IMG Academy on ESPN. The fallout was swift, especially for its mastermind Roy Johnson, who gets to tell his story—as suspect as it is—in BS High, a new HBO documentary (Aug. 23) about this scandalous tale of deceit and exploitation.
“Do I look like a con artist?” asks Johnson upon sitting down for BS High, and the question more or less doubles as an answer. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye and fire in his mouth, Johnson begins by professing his love of the ’80s action TV show The A-Team and its leader Hannibal Smith (George Peppard), whose habit of hatching and executing crazy schemes (“I love it when a plan comes together!”) he sought to emulate. After failing in his bid for a pro gridiron career, Johnson—while interning for the New York Jets—became enamored with the idea of working as a general manager. Having already successfully landed his younger brother on the Ohio State University squad, Johnson seized his chance to realize his dreams when the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ohio came to him about helping to launch Christians of Faith (COF) Academy, and he, in turn, convinced them to add a football component to the school.
John Branham Sr. was the co-founder of COF and has nothing nice to say about Johnson, who initially pretends to not know who Branham is and then downplays his contributions to the academy. Branham’s distrust of the shady Johnson drips off his tongue, and it’s not difficult to see why, since BS High affords Johnson ample opportunities to present himself as an arrogant and untrustworthy huckster. Johnson’s the type of crook who thinks he’s winning people over by confessing that he’s a liar, not realizing that his schtick only reinforces one’s immediate, overpoweringly negative opinion of him. He delivers a persuasively unlikable performance in Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe’s documentary, cackling at his own jokes, defending his disreputable behavior, and cursing up a storm (both on camera and in a parking lot) when he’s confronted by video of one former player crying over the scheme Johnson perpetrated.
Before he had an actual school, much less a team, Johnson recruited a collection of kids who had either not received an offer to play college football or had been ineligible due to academic or financial reasons, promising that he’d make their dreams come true. “Kids” is a qualified term when it comes to Bishop Sycamore, however, considering that some of his players may have been 20 years old (or older)—a no-no in the state of Ohio for a high school program. Johnson denies this but, then, he denies a lot in BS High. His admissions aren’t much better, especially when it comes to the innumerable bills he refused to pay. There isn’t a single thing Johnson states that can be taken at face value. As a result, the reliable voices in BS High are ex-Bishop Sycamore players as well as journalist Andrew King and Ohio High School Athletic Association investigator Ben Ferree, who was the first to try to blow the whistle on Johnson’s ruse.
Johnson likes to reference superheroes presumably because he fancies himself one, as well as an entrepreneur driven by the philosophy, “Do what the people who have the money do, even if you don’t have the money.” When COF fell apart, Johnson simply rebranded his scheme Bishop Sycamore and set about hustling his way through the 2019, 2020, and 2021 seasons, which involved skipping out on countless hotel bills, feeding his kids with whatever he could get his hands on (or whatever his kids could steal from Walmart), outfitting them with makeshift uniforms, and borrowing plays from Madden video games. Somehow, his big talk landed him an ESPN matchup against titan IMG, and when that went terribly south—via a 58-0 slaughter marked by multiple injuries and announcers decrying this sorry spectacle—so too did Bishop Sycamore. TV news exposés, and a report ordered by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, closed the book on the faux institution and, with it, the NCAA aspirations of most of its players.
BS High features many of those individuals recounting their sketchy experiences with Bishop Sycamore. Meanwhile, sports pundit Bomani Jones talks about the shamefulness of Johnson deliberately assuming a father figure/mentor role for these young men and then taking advantage of his position for selfish ends. Johnson’s goal seems to have been less about profit than about fame and power; he saw Bishop Sycamore as a means of establishing himself as a preeminent national figure capable of turning talented teenagers into stars. Despite his protestations, Johnson is outed by the documentary for a litany of offenses, including passing counterfeit checks (that he made at Kinko’s!) from his deceased mom’s nonprofit, and putting hotel rooms in kids’ names so they were the target of subsequent lawsuits over evictions. And that’s without even getting into the PPP loans that he allegedly had kids take out (up to $20,000 each!) in order to pay for Bishop Sycamore’s “tuition.”
Currently on the hook for more than $300,000 in fines due to cases regarding COF and Bishop Sycamore, Johnson is summed up thusly by one of his players: “Coach Roy is evil.” In BS High, however, the accused views himself quite differently. Johnson proclaims that his missteps were either false (such as charges of domestic violence, which he apparently committed in front of students) or were a byproduct of his “insecurity,” and that he was just doing what other prep academies did (save for the absence of an academic program). When it comes to the latter, he probably has a minor point; the bigger-picture ugliness of football feeder programs that prioritize athletics over education is only cursorily addressed. Nonetheless, Free and Roe’s film remains a damning portrait of an unrepentant cheat and the unregulated system—and unsuspecting people—he bamboozled for his own gain.
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