Who Is Really to Blame for the High School Football Scam That Duped ESPN?

Football players from Bishop Sycamore hold up hands and point at the camera from the field
A still from BS High. HBO Max

You might remember Bishop Sycamore. It’s the Ohio high school that was not actually an Ohio high school, but still managed to get its football team on ESPN and proceeded to get destroyed by powerhouse IMG Academy 58–0. In the wake of that blowout, Bishop Sycamore became an internet laughingstock, and it was also investigated by the state as basically a huge scam that took advantage of a bunch of disadvantaged kids. The new (HBO) Max documentary BS High digs into what came before that IMG game and what happened after, with on-camera interviews with a bunch of players—and most memorably, with the founder and coach of Bishop Sycamore, Roy Johnson.

On Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen this week, hosts Joel Anderson, Stefan Fatsis, and Josh Levin discussed the documentary, Johnson’s particular brand of scam artistry, and how the young players fit into the story. A portion of their conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Josh Levin: After watching this 90-minute documentary and spending a lot of time listening to Roy Johnson, I don’t think I’m going to forget the story or that guy for a good long while.

Stefan Fatsis: No, I was actually creeped out and a little scared by the very end of the film because you just got the sense that this guy’s going to find his way back. This is a guy that has 19 lives, or 29 lives. This is one of the great scam artists that you’ve ever seen openly declaring that he’s a scam artist in a documentary that millions of people are probably going to end up watching. Have you seen someone, Joel, with as little remorse as Roy Johnson? At the end of this film, he says that he followed the rules, the system sucks; Bishop Sycamore is just a name; this concept isn’t going anywhere; I may be coming back and doing this again. And he wants us to forget that he bounced checks for hotels where these students, these kids, were put up. He stiffed people on equipment bills. He took out fraudulent PPP loans in the names of players, and he’s got a criminal record and arrest record as long as my arm.

Levin: You didn’t mention that he ran over geese with his car.

Fatsis: I thought we would get to that at some point.

Joel Anderson: Well, he said it was an accident. It was an accident—either he gassed his car to hit them or he did it by accident.

Fatsis: At least going forward, it was an accident. When he backed up and ran the geese over again, I don’t think that was an accident.

Anderson: I thought about this all night after I watched it, and I was trying to decide if I wanted to talk about this. First of all, my opening point is, why were people so impressed with Roy Johnson? I actually did not understand the charm. I didn’t understand why people were drawn to him at all, because he’s not kind; he’s not nice. He’s a good talker. If he keeps talking and you listen to him long enough, and maybe you’re not a details-oriented person, maybe you can fall under his sway. But this is not an impressive person by any stretch of the imagination.

And this is what I wanted to say that was controversial: A slick, articulate Black man can fuck a lot of people up because of the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. Because they’re like, Oh, well, he is a good talker, blah, blah, blah. He’s charming.

I didn’t see any of that shit, man. I don’t know what he was selling. And I think it’s shocking to me in football—where you’re dealing with all sorts of people, all the time—[players and families] know to be cynical about people’s intentions. Even up to the top head coaches in the game, whether it’s Urban Meyer, whatever, people are just like: Well, does this person care about me? Do they really care about my future? Are they really trying to do what’s best for me? And that nobody saw this coming at the beginning, people that operate in that world—it’s just surprising to me. Because I’m not looking at the world’s greatest con artist here. I’m looking at a guy that was a con artist, but I didn’t see anything about him that made him so impressive that he was able to pull this off.

Fatsis: This is a Black guy conning other Black people though, Joel. How does that figure into your analysis?

Anderson: Well, I think that’s a great question. Some of them were Black, but I think that getting people to arrange football games for you, setting up games with IMG, being able to talk people into giving you hotel rooms on credit—even though that’s a part of it, just the fact that he was able to do it over and over again, and nobody looked into it. Even the directors of the film were like, “Oh, he’s a charming guy.” And I remember they said, “We set the documentary up for people to get lured in by the charm and then unveil him as this terrible person.” But as it’s starting out, [watching it,] I’m like, “I’m not seeing the piece of it that made him charming in the first place.”

But you’re right. Bomani Jones is one of the commentators in the documentary. He makes this point: The reason that he was able to get away with it was because he was doing it to Black kids. But the idea that anybody ever thought that he was worth following in the first place is where I’m puzzled, how he had the appeal that he did.

Fatsis: I mean, the kids, the players, were the most sympathetic figures in this documentary for clear and obvious reasons. A, they were unbelievably reflective and clear-eyed about what had happened to them. And it was so sad to hear them talk about what happened to them. And it was also really sad to hear them talk about how they knew what was happening to them as it was happening, but they felt powerless to stop it. Nobody stopped it. At one point during this film, I wrote in my notes in all caps: “STILL NOT CLEAR HOW THIS HAPPENED.” How did he get the equipment? How did they travel? How did he get hotels? How did these kids get fed? I mean, we learned a little bit of that. They were forced to steal to get food at one point.

Levin: And the rotisserie chicken scam.

Fatsis: And the rotisserie chicken scam, where he calls the Publix or whatever and orders 25 rotisserie chickens in the morning and then doesn’t pick them up and knows that at the end of the day, they’re going to discount them to $2. But it’s almost like Johnson is just one step ahead of everybody. He’s preying on the vanity and the hopes and the fears and the expectations and the dreams of these players and their families. I mean, these kids are in touch with parents, who are interviewed in this documentary, who let them stay, let them continue to be held under Johnson and the other coaches in this scam.

Anderson: Right. Well, they’re taking advantage of people’s naïveté and their desperation. Roy and Bishop Sycamore are clear villains, but they’re also easy ones. And I’ve been thinking about this since the Bishop Sycamore stuff [first came out]: What’s the bigger story here? I think it’s a few things. One, the gradual deregulation of education, because even just driving around Houston, I’ll see these schools—charter schools or schools that get public funding—that are not quite public schools or whatever, or people that start up schools now. I’m 45 years old. You could start a school now in a way that you were not able to before. Maybe it could be a private school. But if [anyone] could start a school with public funding and just have charter schools or whatever, I feel like that’s a big piece of it.

There’s also the loss of local media. They interviewed this investigator for OHSAA, the governing agency for Ohio high school sports, in the documentary. And as they’re interviewing him, I’m like, “Oh, I know who this guy is. He would’ve been the local high school sports reporter at the Columbus Dispatch,” or whatever. Thirty years ago, Bishop Sycamore may have not been able to get off the ground or play more than a few games, because people would’ve been like, “What the hell is this school? What are they doing?”

And then you get to the sense that there’s just nothing that can be done. Roy Johnson is telling you, “I’m probably going to do this again.” And we don’t have local government, or effective agencies, that can put a stop to this fraud.

Fatsis: Yeah, because this is completely unregulated territory. They set up a, quote, “private nonchartered academy,” which flew under the radar of state law and state high school regulations.

Anderson: We’ve retreated from the public square. In the middle of this, people like Roy Johnson have taken advantage of it. I think that he’s an easy villain, but the deregulation of all this stuff is a big part of this as well.

Listen to the entire conversation here, or on the podcast player of your choice.