HBO’s football documentary Bishop Sycamore reveals the damage the scandal has done

Two years ago it was a strange and fleeting farce. A soccer cheat turned into a joke and then into a disaster, all in front of an ESPN audience. Bishop Sycamore, a fake Ohio high school full of teenage gamers, scoffed at what would become one of those addicting national prep showcase games where we completely ignore youth exploitation.

As Bishop Sycamore— a scam with the initials BS! – suffering a 58-0 loss to well-known sports farm IMG Academy on August 29, 2021 felt like a silly moment in the midst of a pandemic. Several apparel companies were quick to perpetuate the deception.

I’ve always thought about wearing a Bishop Sycamore Centurions t-shirt. Then I learned the rest of the story.

It’s not that funny. When our laughter stopped, the tragedy continued. In the new HBO documentary BS High, which premiered this week, the sobering tale exposes the rampant malicious behavior of Roy Johnson, the uncompromisingly amoral coach who finds refuge time and time again in the cracks of the legal system; details the mental, physical and emotional trauma suffered by players who came to Bishop Sycamore with dreams of playing college football; and refuses to absolve anyone, including IMG, of their sins of perpetuating a dangerously professionalized model for high school athletics.

The directors, Oscar winners Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free, handle each intricate level with the care that Johnson should have shown his players. They succeed where two similar styles of modern documentaries struggled. First, unlike other debacle documentaries, they didn’t let the oddity of the story lure them so much that they mitigated misery with an overemphasis on silliness. In addition, they went beyond the topicality of their topic.

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

The world of esports is saturated with Insta documentaries about people and things we’re still processing, and most of it seems like flimsy, unsatisfying vanity projects. However, BS High is a thorough indictment of the youth sports ecosystem, an empathetic look at the betrayed players and a provocative character study of Johnson.

When he agreed to more than 30 hours of interviews, Johnson may have thought he could talk himself into heroism. But the more Roe and Free Johnson investigated, the more lies they uncovered.

“We didn’t go into this thing to find a villain,” Roe said in a recent conversation. “He turned out to be an incorrigible liar. We’ve worked pretty hard to fight for the deepest truths that we could uncover.”

The overall picture is shocking. From the start, Johnson – who describes himself as “an honest liar” – dances between charming and scruffy. At the beginning of the film, he asks the question, “Do I look like a cheater?”

He seems to be a playful hustler. Part of his cheating is the direct way he admits he has flaws. Before the film began, Roe and Free Johnson introduced themselves during a FaceTime call, and in that initial conversation, Johnson explained how he scammed a hotel.

The 95-minute documentary alleges Johnson forged a check to pay for housing, took out Covid-19 relief loans on behalf of his players, whipped a homeless man with a belt and drove over geese to prove something to the players. The film depicts his history of charges and allegations of domestic violence.

He’s the last person who should be coaching young people, yet he’s earned the nickname “Coach” and figured out how to get his team on ESPN. Most scammers prefer to cheat in the dark. His biggest scam was stealing fame while everyone was watching. There was no way the plan would work, yet it sustained Bishop Sycamore’s ruse for several seasons. And that’s after he did something similar with a team called Christians of Faith Academy.

For all his misdeeds, Johnson escaped severe punishment because the rules and laws aren’t specific enough to justify a man who would hatch a plan to create a high school that had no school, with high schoolers who didn’t actually have a school had age and then register it with a church for protection.

“I think he thinks he’s bulletproof,” Roe said.

The system gave him that feeling. In its most thought-provoking storytelling choice, “BS High” often pits IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore against each other, portraying them as two sides of the same troubled coin. Inequality becomes a problem. IMG, a boarding school and athletic training lab in Bradenton, Fla., was sold in April for $1.25 billion.

For Johnson, it’s just a different kind of rush. He also wanted to use college sports to his financial advantage, but he exploited the underprivileged rather than the privileged. Few seemed to care until IMG needed an opponent and ESPN needed more TV inventory for big games.

“I hope that parents seeing this will see the need to pay more attention to the system and how it affects their children,” Free said. “There were so many heartbreaking stories. That was one of the hardest things for me, watching a young person in real time confront emotions they never wanted to face.”

From 2021: Bishop Sycamore is the punch line, but a runaway prep sports industry is the joke

When the documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, the former Bishop Sycamore players were invited. It wasn’t Johnson. So the bus bought a ticket and appeared, accompanied by two bodyguards. Free recalled the story of Johnson’s arrival. There was drama because his ticket was not valid for entry. Rather than risk a scene, a producer gave Johnson a spare ticket and he took his place.

During a question-and-answer session after the screening, Roe described Johnson as an “untrustworthy” subject. And he could hear Johnson shouting, “Ouch!” from a balcony seat.

This unease remains for the scammer and the players he cheated even in the absence of legal responsibility. BS High had to seek justice that the state of Ohio failed to achieve after its investigation into Bishop Sycamore. The film unearthed raw truths, but the conclusion remains unclear.

“This movie is most enjoyable when you allow Roy to be funny and witty,” Roe said. “But we left 80 percent of Roy’s jokes on the floor because that humor was manipulation. We are sure [expletive] When you hear from the team, make it clear that many of their actions bordered on evil. And the state failed. We wanted to make sure that the film made you feel uncomfortable. Roy told you he could get away with it and he told you he would come back. This is a story that most people laughed at two years ago, but we are outraged that something like this happened.”

Following Johnson’s brief outburst at the festival, Roe said the coach sent him a private social media message expressing his gratitude for the film. Despite looking like a pathological liar, he seems smitten. The tragedy continues. HBO’s football documentary Bishop Sycamore reveals the damage the scandal has done

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