Jul 19, 2023

‘BS High’ Review: A Fake Football School and the Conman Behind It

By David Fear

Maybe you remember reading about the Bishop Sycamore scandal. Originally known as the Christians of Faith Academy, the Ohio-based institution was trying to build a reputation around itself as the next big thing in high school football. Its target demo was, according to someone involved with the recruitment program, “[student] athletes who were good at football — or thought they were good at football — but weren’t going to play at the next level.” Many of these kids were at-risk youth, living in environments that tested their ability to thrive and survive on a daily level. The promise of an academy that advertised themselves as a Division 1 feeder school, and offered the chance to not only play ball but set up a brighter future for a lot of these teens, was too good to pass up. All they had to do was get themselves to the Buckeye State. C.O.F., which would later “rebrand” itself as Bishop Sycamore, would handle the rest.

And then, after months of disorganized practices, precious few basic resources, no scholastic program to speak of, extremely dodgy living conditions, and having to stay one step ahead of creditors and hotel managers who’d like to be paid, thank you very much, the team scored the opportunity to play the highly renowned IMG Academy. Even better: the game would be televised on ESPN. Bishop Sycamore lost. Actually, “lost” is too kind a word when you’re talking about a 58-0 shellacking and a stunning lack of completions on Sycamore’s part. And it was only after the game went viral that people finally started to pay attention to the fact that — despite having a high school football team — the school itself had never existed in the first place.

Welcome to BS High, a crossbred strain of HBO Sports programming and true-crime procedural so potent you’d have thought it was produced in a laboratory. Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, this recounting of the scandal gives you the breakdown on how the perfect storm of money, social conditions, bureaucratic oversight, and an authority figure’s absence of morality created one hell of a hot mess. Team players weigh in on how they became suspicious when little things like “trainers” or “teachers” were mysteriously M.I.A., and how their college-ball prospects were dashed thanks to guilt by association (and humiliation). Talking heads ranging from former Game Theory host Bomani Jones to ex-Ohio High School Athletics Association investigator Ben Ferree and reporter Andrew King — whose joint book on the subject, Friday Night Lies, deserves the Pun-litzer Prize for the title alone — are given character names: The Video Team, The Pundit, The Sports Mom, The Journalist. Multiple perspectives jockey for screen time.

But really, this documentary is focused on one person, and one person primarily: Roy Johnson. And here’s where things get a little slippery in terms of BS High’s intentions versus its end game, and its ability to become intoxicated by the toxic cult of personality at the center of the Bishop Sycamore charade. Johnson grew up in Long Island with his younger brother, Matt. Both of them loved football. Matt was the more gifted athlete, however, and according to Roy, it was his protectiveness and one-man pep-rally enthusiasm that allowed his sibling to end up playing for Ohio State. The idea that he could guide not just one kid but many to gridiron glory was inspiring. Roy was determined to become the 21st century Pop Warner and establish high school football’s next big “Christian powerhouse” by any means necessary.

The phrase “by any means necessary” does a lot of heavy lifting in Johnson’s story, but you can essentially divide his business plan into three categories: lying, cheating, and stealing. He told everyone that he was being financed by the Third District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. (They had nothing to do with the project.) He had architects and engineers draw up plans for a massive campus center that would’ve cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with the idea that state-of-the-art facilities would attract top-tier players. (It would never get past the wildest-dreams stage.) Hotel rooms would be rented, then never paid for; a paintball company was forced to harass Sycamore’s social team over a credit card scam. Roy’s coaching methods were more or less, “get the ball” and “go, team!” — just not necessarily in that order. Partners were screwed over and/or suckered. More help and more cash was perpetually just around the corner.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Roy Johnson wasn’t a coach but a first-rate con artist, and it takes even less time to recognize that BS High is attracted to that aspect of its subject the way a moth is to a flame. (Asked point blank if he’s a grifter, Johnson demurs with, “It’s not, like, my trade or profession….?” Roy eventually settles on “con man-ish.”) He’s the type of remorseless, egocentric, borderline sociopath that modern documentarians love, who never met a camera he couldn’t mug to and believes he’s being 100-percent truthful by admitting he always lies. Put Johnson up against Tiger King’s Joe Exotic and Elizabeth Holmes, and he could hold his own in terms of being an unrelentingly unreliable narrator. He tells the school’s video team/marketing duo to ignore bad press because the goal is to keep the message behind Bishop Sycamore positive. In Roy’s mind, however, all press is good press. Johnson may have fucked over a lot of people to have his moment on the sidelines and the spotlight. But as he points out, look who’s talking to filmmakers on HBO? So who’s getting the last laugh?

Indeed, it’s hard to grok who’s playing who here at times, and there seems to be two struggles going on in BS High: the swindler vs. the swindled leading up to that fateful ESPN game, and the defensive guy with the double-down charm offensive vs. those behind the camera. That second stand-off leads to the doc’s most self-reflexively shameless moment, when the filmmakers force Johnson to watch footage of a tearful student talk about his disillusionment. Then they follow him outside on what may or may not be an unintentionally hot mic, as Johnson bemoans the fact that he’s been “set up.” This is goosed-up Reality TV Shenanigans 101, and it feels too cheap by half. You can feel the influence of lot of recent hyped-up docuseries at work here, which isn’t a dealbreaker. Yet when you have Bomani Jones dropping a sociological nugget like “he did this to Black players because that’s who you can do this to,” or have various people attest to how the lucrative deals in high school sports led to something like this — and then not have those tantalizing threads pulled on further — it’s tough not to wish for more discipline about the big picture and less “gotcha” immediate gratification.

Still, if you wanted to get the scoop on the when, where and how the Bishop Sycamore scandal happened, BS High is a good primer. The who of this story, however, takes precedent, and while you’re supposed to feel conflicted over how Johnson paved his own best-intentions road to hell, don’t blame yourself for feeling a little dirty over getting nudged into buying into what he’s selling. As for the why? That’s easy: We love, or at the very least reward liars who double down and uses their delusions to further their ambitions and celebrity. After this doc brings the details of Johnson’s scam to a bigger audience outside of sports junkies, he’ll never be allowed near a football field again. But he could probably run for president.