The voice on ESPN sounded troubled. It was the second quarter of a high school football game Sunday between national powerhouse IMG Academy and a little-known Columbus, Ohio, school named Bishop Sycamore. And the game was getting out of hand.
"Bishop Sycamore told us they had a number of Division I prospects on their roster, and to be frank, a lot of that, we could not verify," announcer Anish Shroff said.
IMG was leading 30-0 on its way to a 58-0 victory. But Shroff wasn't worried about the score. He was confused about who the players on the field were for Bishop Sycamore — and, he said, concerned. "From what we've seen so far, this is not a fair fight," he said. "And there's got to be a point where you're worried about health and safety."
He wasn't the only one. "It felt like the twilight zone," one member of the production crew told The Washington Post. "No one thought they should be playing."
It was an embarrassing moment for ESPN: a game, aired on its flagship network, between two teams that its announcers were telling viewers had no business playing each other. It only got stranger from there. Bishop Sycamore, a three-year-old charter school, had been booked for a slot on ESPN against one of the country's premier teams without having won a football game in its brief history. And it turned out the school had played another game with the same players just two days earlier.
The story lit up social media, fueled by the website Awful Announcing, which raised more questions about Bishop Sycamore. Its website was missing basic information, including where it was located. Its coach, Roy Johnson, had helped run a different school that was shut down by Ohio's Board of Education. Legal troubles have dogged the school since its founding.
ESPN's production staff was worried about the game in the days leading up to it, two people involved said. Concerns were raised with superiors, but the game went ahead anyway. The story of how that happened features many of the trappings of hyper-professionalized youth sports: a made-for-TV high school in need of a game, a sports network looking for content, and the coach of a suspect school who believed TV's bright lights would make him and his players stars.
ESPN declined to make any executives available, placing the blame on Paragon Marketing, a Chicago-based company that has put together high school matchups for ESPN fo two decades. "We regret that this happened and have discussed it with Paragon," ESPN said in a statement. "They have ensured us that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward."
Paragon President Rashid Ghazi said in an interview that had he known Bishop Sycamore played Friday night, he would have canceled the game. Ghazi said his company needed to better vet teams. IMG declined to comment.
Johnson, the Ohio school's coach, was removed from that position, USA Today reported Tuesday, after this story was published. But in an interview Monday, Johnson expressed no regrets.
"No one had ever heard of us before we got this game," he said.
IMG needed a game. The boarding school and sports training facility in Bradenton, Fla., is annually one of the top high school teams in the country. Owned by media conglomerate Endeavor, it was created to lure top high school athletes from around the country to focus on training.
It plays a national schedule and regularly sends football recruits to powerhouses such as Alabama. Essentially a professionalized all-star team, it often has trouble scheduling games against well-matched opponents. But a team with so many high-profile recruits also sells on TV. So as part of this past weekend's high school kickoff celebration, IMG was scheduled to play in Canton, Ohio, near the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Paragon believed it was a perfect fit for a Sunday night ESPN game. It just needed an opponent for IMG.
After reaching out to several schools and finding no takers, Paragon turned to a man in New Jersey named Joe Maimone. A vice president of sales at Billboard, Maimone runs a company called Prep Gridiron Logistics on the side. The company makes no money, he said, but because of his love of high school football, he plays matchmaker to top teams looking to schedule out-of-state games.
Maimone met Johnson earlier this year, after Bishop Sycamore reached out for help scheduling. Maimone said he traveled to Columbus, saw the facility where Bishop Sycamore trained and a certificate of recognition from the Ohio Department of Education. He agreed to add the school to his network.
When Paragon came looking for a game for IMG, Maimone put out the word to some 200 schools that IMG needed an opponent at the end of August in Canton. One school responded: Bishop Sycamore.
"They should be commended," Maimone said. "They're the only school that had the guts to take on the best."
When ESPN televises a high school game, schools usually put together rosters, headshots and fact sheets about their players and the school. Bishop Sycamore never did that, members of the production team said. Production staffers finally received a roster last week that listed around 10 players with Division I scholarship offers. But according to two people who reviewed it, it was riddled with mistakes. Many of the offers could not be verified, and some of the players appeared not to be on the team. After a Google search offered few clues about the school, the production team grew wary, people involved said. The staff raised concerns to superiors at ESPN.
On Friday morning, Johnson didn't show up to a scheduled Zoom meeting with the production team. On Sunday morning, producers finally received a single sheet of information from Johnson for the telecast.
"The proudest moment of this program is that within three years this program is on ESPN with over a dozen D1 players at least," the document said.
As soon as the game started, the production team's worst fears were confirmed. Players' jersey numbers did not match the printed roster. IMG scored with ease. Bishop Sycamore didn't look as if it was even running plays, one person on the production team said. "It was like these four- and five-star recruits against a JV team," said a member of the production team. "We were really worried."
During a lightning delay in the first quarter, organizers spoke to Johnson about calling the game. He refused. When the game resumed, organizers suggested a running clock to speed up the game, but Johnson declined that, too.
Instead, as the game got further out of hand, Johnson continued to call timeouts, one person at the game said, which only served to prolong it. Even in the blowout, the person said, IMG Academy used its timeouts, too.
A troubled partnership
When Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore in 2019, he reached out to officials at a local school, YouthBuild Columbus, as a potential partner. Bishop Sycamore would bring new students — all football players — to the school, and the school would provide the players with an education. A memorandum of understanding was drafted ahead of the 2019 school year.
Things quickly went sideways. The first sign of trouble was when YouthBuild learned that the players had been evicted from where they were staying, said Edmund Brown, a lawyer for YouthBuild. YouthBuild's executive director, Leigh Ann King, said the school attempted to find homes for some of the players afterward. (Johnson said all the students found housing.)
Around the same time, Brown said, YouthBuild received an invoice from an Ohio apparel company looking for a payment of around $6,000 for uniforms and equipment that Bishop Sycamore had ordered. But YouthBuild's Board of Governors had not approved the cost, Brown said. YouthBuild cut ties with Bishop Sycamore before the memorandum was signed.
YouthBuild hired Brown after Bishop Sycamore continued to reference its affiliation to YouthBuild online, including on the high school sports website MaxPreps. According to a cease and desist letter Brown sent to Bishop Sycamore in February, YouthBuild informed the state attorney general and the police department of Bishop Sycamore's "fraudulent" activities.
"It was a miscommunication more than a problem," Johnson said. "They are a great program."
It wasn't the first school Johnson has been associated with that has had trouble. In 2018, he served as the spokesman of Christians of Faith Academy, another football-focused school, when it had its recognition revoked by the Ohio Department of Education because it was not a functioning school, according to This Week News. IMG had to cancel a game against COF after it was shut down. (IMG and Bishop Sycamore played last year as well.)
Johnson defended Bishop Sycamore during the interview Monday with The Post. He said the school does, in fact, have a physical address where students both work out and attend classes. He said he had around 75 students, most of whom play football. He said Bishop Sycamore is recognized by the Ohio Board of Education, the same documentation he showed Maimone earlier this year, and students attend classes in person and online.
"We just need to work on our website, on our marketing," he said. "We're just a school from humble beginnings that is trying to get kids to play college football."
But the roster Bishop Sycamore gave the ESPN production staff included far fewer players than the 75 Johnson advertised. And Bishop Sycamore's recognition from the state is for a non-charter, nontax school reserved for organizations with "truly held religious beliefs."
Asked about that designation, Johnson said the school was founded by ministers, that students pray before games and that the school infuses life lessons with biblical themes. "When we talk about speaking with one voice, we talk about the Tower of Babel," he said. (Bishop Sycamore will have to apply again this fall for a renewal of its recognition from the state.)
By Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had called for an investigation into Bishop Sycamore as its opponents began pulling out of games. Perennial D.C.-area powerhouse DeMatha said in the morning it would not play its scheduled October game. Duncanville of Texas and Friday's opponent, Pennsylvania's Johnson Central, also pulled the plug.
"We saw everyone else they were playing," DeMatha Coach Bill McGregor said in an interview. "It's not even in the realm of what you're thinking, 'Are you a real school?'"