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The True Story Behind the HBO Documentary BS High—and the Football Scandal at its Center

5 minute read

BS High, a new documentary from HBO now streaming on Max, chronicles the fallout from a high school football scandal that rocked the sports world and dashed the dreams of many of the players caught up in it.

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, BS High gives a behind-the-scenes look at how Bishop Sycamore, a football team representing a nonexistent high school, came to play top-ranked IMG Academy in a game broadcast on ESPN on August 29, 2021.

At the center of the fiasco was Bishop Sycamore head coach Roy Johnson, a self-described "honest liar" who, in the opening minutes of BS High, asks producers if he "look[s] like a con artist"—a question the filmmakers unpack over the next hour and a half.

"In the beginning, [we] allow him to treat you, the viewer, in the way that he treats all of his subjects, all the people that he’s attempting to con—by making you think that he has all the best intentions, he’s a good person," Free told USA Today. "And then the thread gets pulled and it unravels, and you see exactly who he is, what he is, and what he’s done.

The film draws on interviews with Johnson, former Bishop Sycamore players and parents, others associated with the program, journalists, and a former state athletic association investigator to paint a picture of how Johnson fabricated a high school football team and subsequently schemed his way into a nationally televised game against one of the country's perennial powerhouses—a scam so egregious that no one ever thought to make a law against it.

The August 2021 match-up, which saw IMG trounce Bishop Sycamore 58-0 and resulted in a number of significant injuries to Bishop Sycamore players, led to the game becoming a viral spectacle, the team becoming the subject of widespread ridicule, and the unraveling of Johnson's long-running fraud.

What led to the Bishop Sycamore-IMG matchup

The documentary breaks down how, ahead of the 2018 season, Johnson began recruiting high school football players who had missed out on college recruitment to play for a start-up prep school in Columbus, Ohio, called Christians of Faith (COF) Academy, the precursor to Bishop Sycamore, that he claimed was affiliated with a church. The problem was that neither school ever actually existed.

Many of these players were Black, poor, and came from disadvantaged communities, and Johnson sold them on grand promises of providing the support they needed to make it to the next level and achieve their football aspirations. But a slew of legal, financial, and administrative issues were in play behind the scenes.

Not only were the players not attending school, they were living in—and getting kicked out of—hotels where Johnson often wasn't paying the bills. Some of the players interviewed for the documentary described situations where they were left hungry after being given barely anything to eat. And those problems were just the tip of the iceberg.

Still, Johnson pressed forward with scheduling top-tier matchups for Bishop Sycamore across Ohio and beyond, including a highly publicized game against IMG that aired on ESPN as the finale of the 2021 ESPN High School Kickoff series. The offer to play was extended to Bishop Sycamore after the parties responsible for scheduling the game couldn't find a single other taker.

What happened to Roy Johnson

As we see in BS High, former Bishop players and parents accused Johnson of, among other things, using Kinko's to forge a check, instigating a team beatdown of a homeless man, purposefully running over a gaggle of geese, and encouraging players to take out PPP loans under a COVID-19 relief program to pay their "tuition."

Johnson also faced a domestic violence charge that he eventually pleaded down to the lesser charge of menacing, was arrested for stealing from an Ohio Best Buy while using the fake name Tristan Hershtol, and currently owes more than $300,000 in fines and settlements related to COF and Bishop Sycamore.

Throughout the documentary, Johnson generally deflects or excuses his behavior when pressed to answer to the accusations levied against him.

Earlier this month, sports media outlet Awful Announcing reported that Johnson filed for bankruptcy in Ohio this summer, claiming in filings that he has less than $50,000 in assets and between $100,000-500,000 in liabilities.

But while a lengthy report released in December 2021 by the Ohio Department of Education discredited Johnson and concluded that Bishop Sycamore "is not a school as it purports on paper to be," the state has since taken no action to enact laws that would prevent someone else from pulling off a similar scam.

"They have no legal ability to regulate it. Roy [Johnson] knows this and says in the film that he’s going to use the publicity of this film to come back,” Roe told Front Office Sports. “There is a loophole here that allows these teams and these clubs to pretend that they’re schools so that they can play these big, powerful teams, so that they can lose and they can make the people that run them money. And unless the laws change, that cannot be stopped.”

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com