How the Bishop Sycamore Football Saga Happened
It rose from the ashes of a nearly identical Columbus school, Christians of Faith Academy. And it all occurred in plain sight.
College football season is ramping up, and the NFL is about to kick off. But it feels like the biggest story in American sports centers around a high school football matchup involving a Columbus program that no one heard of a week ago.
Sunday afternoon, ESPN aired a high school football game between IMG Academy—a Florida school known as one of the biggest football powerhouses in the country—and a school called Bishop Sycamore, which arrived on the national scene as a complete unknown. The matchup was part of the GEICO ESPN High School Football Kickoff, a seven-game slate meant to highlight exciting programs from across the country.
But instead of a showcase, the game served as a national conversation-starter. Sycamore was obviously outmatched, trailing 30-0 midway through the second quarter in a game that would end 58-0. Sycamore players looked tired and withstood huge hits throughout the game, leading many to wonder on social media how the matchup made its way to the flagship station of the Worldwide Leader.
Since the game, the story has drawn national attention from reporters, NFL players and everyone in between. ESPN has admitted they regret showing the game. Bishop Sycamore Head Coach and figurehead Roy Johnson has reportedly been fired.
Even Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a statement Tuesday saying he “asked the Ohio Department of Education to conduct an investigation into Bishop Sycamore to ensure compliance with Ohio law and to ensure the school is providing the educational opportunities Ohio students deserve.”
Lost in the shuffle, however, is the fact that Bishop Sycamore isn’t brand new. The school didn’t come out of nowhere, and it didn’t start this year. This wasn’t even the first time they had played IMG. In fact, the story began in 2018, when Bishop Sycamore operated under a different name and Ohio high school sports officials began raising concerns.
The program began as Christians of Faith Academy, known as COF Academy, and drew attention when it began appearing on the schedules of high school football teams. But these weren’t just any teams—COF Academy was drawing top-tier matchups across Ohio and beyond.
The team’s in-state schedule alone featured Huber Heights Wayne, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Lakewood St. Edward. Outside of Ohio, they played major programs like IMG and North Allegheny in Wexford, Pennsylvania.
At the time, Ben Ferree was the assistant director of officiating and sport management at the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the governing body for Ohio high school sports.
Ferree’s interest in COF Academy began when teams started scheduling in 2018. Because the OHSAA’s playoff system is decided by a computer algorithm that assigns points for results based on division—which is in turn based on enrollment—the OHSAA has to have an enrollment figure for each opponent. That proved challenging with a team that didn’t have a website, roster or paper trail of any kind.
As the resident “jack of all trades,” one of Ferree’s tasks was investigations into occasionally complex or difficult topics. So to get to the bottom of the COF Academy situation, he called to ask for their enrollment and spoke to Johnson himself, who told Ferree that COF Academy would have 750 students.
“Immediately, it didn’t pass the smell test,” he says. “A first-year program with 750 boys? That’s not possible. That doesn’t happen. But they kept saying, ‘No, no, it’s legitimate.’ Roy Johnson came to the OHSAA office and said they wanted to do things by the book and even wanted to join the OHSAA. We said, ‘OK, if you want to join, there’s a process.’ They gave us documentation and one of the things they provided was an address that led nowhere. It quickly became apparent that they were not a real school, and there were no classes going on.”
Because they portrayed themselves as a Division 1 school, a matchup against COF Academy became a favorable one for Ohio schools. They could play a fledgling program that nearly guaranteed a win while racking up the maximum number of computer points.
Ferree and others raised red flags with officials, reporters and other schools as COF Academy continued to play games and confuse onlookers. As detailed in a ThisWeek News series, the school eventually folded after its school registration was revoked, an alleged partner church disowned the program and their dishonest representation of the “school” was made clear. Johnson also faced a variety of legal problems.
By the end of the saga, COF Academy officials were already talking publicly about rebranding as Bishop Sycamore. And while no one paid much attention, the program kept moving. They played fewer Ohio teams in the 2019 season before, Ferree says, seizing an opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Schools were scrambling to find games, things were getting canceled at the last minute and people couldn’t find games,” he says. “That’s when Roy Johnson struck. He put the school back out there and got tons of games for Bishop Sycamore. They’re getting heat right now for playing on Friday and Sunday, but last year they played a game in Tennessee and then came back and played in Ohio the next day. The OHSAA informed all these schools, ‘You know this is not a real school. You know many of these kids are over 18.’ By and large, the schools said, ‘Thank you for informing us’ and played the games anyway.”
So when Ferree saw the events of last weekend unfold, he wasn’t surprised. Despite leaving the OHSAA in April, he kept track of the story and felt frustrated, as he had been for years.
“I’m angry,” says Ferree, who no longer works in sports. “I had spent literal years calling anyone who would listen, and mostly no one would. I called schools and said, ‘Don’t play these people.’ I called reporters in Columbus and across the state and said, ‘Do you understand what’s going on here?’ No one ever wanted to run the story.”
Ferree says he even attempted to get in touch with ESPN before they aired the game. He said he got “bounced around” and left a series of voicemails only to never hear back. But he’s used to that — it’s how the story has been received since the beginning.
“I fed all this information to news outlets for years,” he says. “And this wasn’t just ‘This random guy from the OHSAA says this,’ I had proof and brought court documentation. And yet, other than ThisWeek News, no one ever picked up the story. There were so many people who could’ve stopped this scam years ago, and now everyone is clutching their pearls. You see people writing articles saying, ‘Schools shouldn’t play Bishop Sycamore’ when those same reporters had the information a year ago and didn’t write a story on it then.”
But blame shouldn’t just go to the media, Ferree says — schools shouldn’t be scheduling teams like COF Academy or Bishop Sycamore that exist only as sporting entities.
In Ohio, schools are technically allowed to play anyone they choose. “They could play the Cleveland Browns,” and it simply wouldn’t count for those teams’ points. In the wake of the COF Academy debacle, Ferree says the OHSAA polled its members on whether they should change that rule — all OHSAA decisions are made by simple majority. Member schools declined the change.
“It’s indicative of a problem across high school athletics that these schools would rather play a team that’s not a real school — knowing that it’s not real and knowing that these are 20-year-olds vs. their 16-year-olds — than have a bye week,” Ferree says. “They’d rather play football than do the right thing. They’re enabling the scam. If Bishop Sycamore can’t schedule games, the scam falls apart.”
Ferree says he feels sorry for the students who were duped, the opposition who had to play in sham games and parents who spent money on the process. He does not, however, feel sorry for those who enabled Johnson and the program, and hopes that the ordeal will help shine a light on the darker crevices of high school football.
“This has been going on in Columbus for three or four years now run by the same people and no one cared until it started trending on Twitter,” he says. “That’s sad.”
Andrew King is a former ThisWeek Community News reporter who wrote a series of articles about Christians of Faith Academy, the predecessor of Bishop Sycamore.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect final score and date for the Bishop Sycamore and IMG Academy game.