BS High: a fake football school and the devastating effects of a conman’s lies | US sports

In August 2021, two high school football teams met in the Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, Ohio, for a much-hyped matchup shown live on ESPN. When it quickly became a 58-0 blowout, suspicion descended most heavily on the losing side – an outfit called Bishop Sycamore purporting to be a faith-based school that actually turned out to be fake. The scandal rocked the sports world, lit up social media and had Hollywood producers rushing to unpick the sordid affair. Travon Free, the veteran comedian and TV writer, was already workshopping titles. “So the Bishop Sycamore movie is definitely gonna be called ‘BS’ right?,” he tweeted.

That film, BS High, premieres Thursday on HBO and has Free co-directing with Martin Desmond Roe. BS High marks their first collaboration since their Academy Award-winning short Two Distant Strangers. But where that film was a fiction, this 97-minute doc is stranger than. It features extensive interviews with many of the people at the center of the scandal – not least the players, whose experiences had mostly been captured in dribs and drabs on social media and in the press. The biggest get by far is Bishop Sycamore coach Roy Johnson – “the sine qua non of what you needed to tell this story properly,” Roe says. Johnson’s fan fealty to Michael Strahan, the NFL great turned BS High executive producer, was what ultimately motivated him to talk. Much of what he says is shocking.

BS High opens with Johnson asking filmmakers if he looks like a con artist before admitting to consulting with a body language expert so he would appear more trustworthy on camera. Immediately, it becomes obvious that Johnson – who likens himself to legendary college coach Bear Bryant and Magneto before settling on the nickname ‘Loophole Leroy’ – tells tall tales as easily as he breathes, even when faced with evidence that contradicts his stories. “After sitting across from him for so much time and kind of learning his game, you kinda start to figure out his rhythms and the ways in which he tells you things,” says Free, who interviewed Johnson for 24 hours across three days. Adds Roe: “Roy never ever got bored.”

Johnson starts out wanting viewers to believe in his pure version of Bishop Sycamore, which he launched under a different name with the idea of creating a football institute for high school prospects who had fallen through the cracks. He reveals his grand design for a midwestern powerhouse, complete with a $100m facility, to rival Florida’s IMG Academy – a de facto prep school for future pros. But where IMG Academy was developed over five decades and sold to a Hong Kong-based private equity firm for $1.25bn, Johnson tried to build Rome in a day. Bomani Jones, the sharpest analyst in sports, provides context for the problematic world that made both ventures possible.

In Johnson’s case, he suckered a church into letting him run a school in its name and convincing parishioners to tap into their life insurance policies to fund it. He made the football program his sole focus. He homed in on Black prospects from underprivileged backgrounds who thrilled at the idea of playing for an all-Black coaching staff and hired a video team to gin up PR hype. Within three years, Bishop Sycamore were kicking off against IMG Academy on ESPN. Meanwhile, Ben Ferree, a former investigator for Ohio’s youth athletics board, is to this scandal what Harry Markopolos is to the Madoff ponzi scheme – the first guy to sniff out the con and the loudest to complain about it. But of course the worst didn’t come out until after Bishop Sycamore were embarrassed on national television.

Players for Bishop Sycamore in training.
Bishop Sycamore players in training. Photograph: Courtesy of HBO

Among other things: Bishop Sycamore did not have a brick-and-mortar location or settle their debts. Players wanted for medical care and food and resorted to stealing for their supper. Some players had active arrest warrants that affected the team’s travel. (Johnson himself was wanted on fraud charges and facing a lawsuit for an unpaid $110,000 hotel bill.) Other players were well past the age to be considered high school eligible.

In one of many damning sequences, the film makes the case that Johnson used his players’ social security numbers to take out PPP loans and stuck them with the obligation without their knowledge. Free and Roe themselves emerge from behind the camera for bad cop/worse cop interviews with Johnson. The more he’s confronted with his gruesome acts, the more he delights in having fooled so many for so long. When Johnson wasn’t on camera, Free and Roe say, he was stalking players in the parking lot and blowing up their phones ahead of their film interviews, like a mobster intimidating witnesses in a Rico case. His general contempt for his charges – “entitled, selfish, lyin-ass niggas” is how he sums them up – was off the charts. “The minute he said that,” Roe recalls, “we were like, Did he just say that out loud?’ Like, with fury and rage and self-entitlement? Like he’s been done bad? Are you fucking kidding me?”

BS High’s directors were extra careful not to let Johnson spin their project into a heist film that valorizes the robber – like so many documentaries about fraudsters. “The impact here isn’t like Tinder Swindler – one person, two people who lost a bit of money and a bit of time,” Roe continues. “This is four years with 40, 50 kids being sucked into something that was a complete lie and having their confidence and self worth shattered.” The film also spends time with Bishop Sycamore parents and shows how their kids’ investment in Johnson’s dream, made all the more credible by his church affiliations and his seeming ability to make things happen, complicated their genuine efforts to avoid the con. Once Johnson had them on the hook, that was it.

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Trillian Harris, Bishop Sycamore’s starting quarterback for the ESPN game, is one of many unfortunate examples. He actually dislocated his shoulder in the game – a story that paled in comparison to ESPN’s play-by-play man admitting, on air, that he didn’t know the name of another Bishop Sycamore player who appeared to blow out his knee. (“We do not have a [number] 54 on the roster we were given,” warned Aniff Shroff.) Harris supports the characterization of Johnson as a lowlife and says he thought he’d be able to move on from his Bishop Sycamore experience after signing with Grambling State University – a historically Black college program led by former NFL coach Hue Jackson. But once the college realized Harris hadn’t actually finished high school, the scholarship was revoked. The disappointment plunged Harris into a deep depression, and many of his teammates continue to grapple with similar mental traumas.

BS High gives them the opportunity to not only release some of that pain but explain why they fell prey to Johnson’s scam, which he got away with. Ohio governor Mike DeWine made a lot of noise about wanting to drop the hammer on Bishop Sycamore, but without any explicit laws on the books preventing a person from creating a fake school, DeWine let the matter lie. DeWine also ducked an invitation from the filmmakers to explain himself. “He’s the kind of person I could see taking the information we’ve compiled and trying to make an example out of Roy for a number of reasons,” Free says. “Given the history of Republican politics in Ohio, I think he’d love to make an example of Roy.”

In an age when so much of sports documentary has become stylized PR, BS High is a high mark for the genre, a masterclass in proper journalism. It does the job of capturing the incredulity of the moment and getting down to the bottom of the deeper impacts. Who knew a portrait of a conman could be so honest. “You see every version of Roy,” Free says. “The angry, yelling Roy. The charming, laughing Roy. And then you get Denzel in Training Day at the end.”