Field of Schemes: Inside Ben Ferree's Three-Year Mission to Expose Bishop Sycamore

Long before the rest of the world heard about Bishop Sycamore, Ben Ferree was speaking out about the controversial school. Why was he ignored?

Andrew King
Ben Ferree stands near the Stelzer Road site where Bishop Sycamore leaders said they planned to build a school.

The term “whistleblower” carries with it a certain weight. It evokes thoughts of Edward Snowden, Mark Felt and Daniel Ellsberg—insiders who took great risks to leak important information to the public. These people are rarely rewarded or revered for their courage and are often subject to ridicule, hatred and, in some cases, legal and societal repercussions.

Ben Ferree says he doesn’t quite fit that definition, though it’s not entirely off-base, either. Indeed, he’s a skeptic, a truthteller and an unrelenting tipster who got me interested in a story that snowballed into one of the biggest sports scandals in Columbus. But Ferree didn’t uncover wrongdoing that occurred behind closed doors. The things he revealed were in plain sight, easy for people to see—as long as they were willing to open their eyes.

You wouldn’t know it to look at his resume or his social media following, but Ferree is a central figure in one of the most intriguing and discussed sports stories of 2021—the rise and fall of Bishop Sycamore. The saga began in 2018, when Ferree learned about a school called Christians of Faith Academy. At the time, Ferree was the assistant director of officiating and sport management at the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the governing body for Ohio’s high school sports. The position was one of the lowest on the organizational totem pole—largely paperwork, routine phone calls and double-checking. But Ferree managed to carve out a role he found interesting: a jack-of-all-trades investigator.

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COF Academy was new to Columbus, but soon the high school’s football team began to appear on the schedules of some of Ohio’s most visible programs. Ferree began looking into the school after another OHSAA official struggled to verify its enrollment, a key factor in calculating points earned for eligibility in the association’s playoffs. (A team gets more points for victories over larger schools.)

Roy Johnson in front of the St. Paul AME Church

That first conversation led to three years of work, investigation and frustration for Ferree. COF Academy made its way to major programs around Ohio and beyond, leaving behind an impressive legal trail as Roy Johnson, COF coach and self-described “face” of the program, and his business partner Jay Richardson—a WSYX/ABC 6 analyst and former Ohio State and NFL football player—were sued by banks, had vehicles repossessed and outran a number of unpaid debts. No more than about 50 players were ever around at a given time, and the school never had a building or even a functional website. Students reportedly never went to class, and parents began to pull players from the program. COF officials told everyone they were backed by the local chapter of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which later disowned the project entirely.

By early 2019, the school folded, but a new one quickly took its place: Bishop Sycamore, which continued to book prime football matchups and avoided public scrutiny, even though its questionable practices didn’t change. On Sunday, Aug. 29, of this year, that anonymity ended.

Bishop Sycamore loses to nation's top high school football program, IMG Academy

IMG Academy linebacker Xavian Sorey makes a tackle against Bishop Sycamore on Oct. 16, 2020.

On that day, Bishop Sycamore squared off against Florida’s IMG Academy, the nation’s top high school football program, on ESPN. The game was a travesty, with a profoundly overmatched Bishop Sycamore losing 58-0. Viewers railed on social media about the appalling, nationally televised spectacle. Midway through the second quarter, the score was 30-0 and Sycamore players looked exhausted. (Later, it was revealed that the team had played a game two days earlier.) The Sycamore offensive line struggled to block on nearly every play. Onlookers worried about injuries as Sycamore defenders bounced off IMG ball-carriers. In the first quarter, Sycamore put its offense on the field in a 4th and 15 and had its quarterback punt the ball, only to have it blocked into the endzone for a safety.

Since the game, reporters all over the country have written about Bishop Sycamore. Players have spoken up to tell stories of stealing from grocery stores to make up for missed meals. Numerous members of the Bishop Sycamore roster have been shown to be overage. Parents (and even students) have told horror stories of having their credit cards misused for Bishop Sycamore dealings.

None of this surprised Ferree, who spent three years sounding the alarm about the program. Along the way, he reached out to reporters, called high school athletic directors and warned coaches, even when he no longer worked for the OHSAA. And until this summer, that work was largely in vain.

But now, people are finally listening.

The start of the investigation

Christians of Faith Academy assistant coach Roy Hall talks to players at a football practice in 2018.

The first time I heard about COF Academy was in July 2018, when Ferree introduced the topic in a group chat that included me and two other friends. Our quartet attended Capital University and spent varying amounts of time around one another. But the way we really bonded was through a regular trivia team and a love of sports. With Ferree’s work, his enthusiasm for investigation and the never-ending supply of drama provided by the sports world, he never lacked for group chat material.

“Ben’s obsession with minutiae is exhausting, and he’s seemingly most interested in the details about things that literally no one else in the world cares about,” says Matt Guthrie, another member of the group. “We’ll be done talking or caring about something for days while Ben continues rambling nonsense to us. He’ll start a sentence with, ‘Did you know’ before informing us of the least-fun fact of all time that no one asked for. Ben’s curiosity in things nobody else cares about is his most definable quality.”

On that day three years ago, Ferree was frustrated. He had been spending a lot of time at work on an investigation into a new “school” (he always put it in quotation marks) called COF Academy. At that point, Ferree was armed mainly with a list of things that didn’t add up. It was, in his view, “impossible” for a school to appear in Ohio’s capital city with no background, and it was even more ridiculous that it was playing a high school football schedule made almost entirely of powerhouse programs. When Roy Johnson told Ferree the school had 750 students, he was incredulous. How could a school go from nonexistent to the size of Columbus’ Centennial High School overnight?

In spite of this, Ferree was still the only one talking about COF. Because he was a part-time journalist himself and regularly talked with reporters for OHSAA work, he was confident he could find a bigger home for the story. He started with reporters at the biggest news outlets in the state, but he was met with apathy. With nowhere else to turn, he looked to me and the group chat. The story was not immediately met with a significantly better response. “The situation was insane, but not too far outside the stuff we would normally hear in the chat,” says Steve Kall, the fourth member of the group. “It would just pop up every now and then with 100 texts that I missed while I was in one meeting.”

At the time, I was a full-time reporter for ThisWeek Community News, a group of weekly papers that covers the suburbs and neighborhoods around the Columbus metro area. (Like Columbus Monthly, ThisWeek is part of the Dispatch media group, now owned by Gannett.) I also worked in sports, covering the Columbus Crew for The Athletic. While ThisWeek employed a collection of high school sports reporters, I was not among them and was not interested in writing about high school sports. The freelance outlets I worked for were national in scope and were not a fit for a niche story about an Ohio football team. But Ferree was out of options and desperate for someone to tell the story.

“I gave it to you when everyone else passed,” he told me in September. “I think I remember selling it to you as, ‘There’s meat here. If what I think is true is true, this is a story. This is a news story.’” He didn’t see this as an ESPN story; he saw it as a CNN story. At first, I didn’t see it as much of a story at all. And then, in the same way Ferree had in previous months, I started digging into it.

The story I begrudgingly started tracking down became the most extensive coverage of my career. I wrote a variety of investigative stories covering the team, its leaders and their many legal and professional issues in 2018 and 2019. In a business much more interested in an inch-deep, mile-wide approach to news, I was fortunate to have editors who were intrigued enough to let me investigate. The story wasn’t specific to the communities I was assigned to cover, but they let me tackle it anyway.

With Ferree’s help, I began to understand COF’s modus operandi, based on his and my research and the many legal cases filed against Johnson and the school. COF opponents benefited from playing the team in a variety of ways, the simplest being that powerhouse teams in Ohio struggle to schedule anyone at all—most teams don’t want to guarantee themselves a loss. But the opponents were also promised—usually by Johnson himself—that COF would eventually be a Division I or Division II school. Because qualification for the OHSAA playoffs gives more points for wins over higher-division teams, a victory over a Division I school is valuable. And, as Ferree explained, even if the program never was certified as any division at all, it’s better for a school’s algorithm to beat a non-certified school than to beat a lower division one. All that mattered was that it wasn’t a low-points win. In turn, fledgling COF received stipends from its more established opponents—small potatoes to the large schools but a big deal for COF. (Stipends are a common practice for big programs, Ferree says.)

COF Academy eventually crumbled. A combination of Ferree’s hounding and my stories led OHSAA to deny any playoff points to victorious opponents of COF Academy, while the Ohio Department of Education revoked the school’s registration. Still, no larger outlet ever latched onto the story.

And so in the aftermath of COF Academy’s failure, Bishop Sycamore rose from its ashes. And this time, no one cared enough to ask questions, not even local news reporters. In 2019, I left ThisWeek to take a job in public relations. “I was always waiting for someone bigger to pick it up, and no one ever did,” Ferree says.

The rise of Bishop Sycamore

Bishop Sycamore leaders—including athletic director Andre Peterson, whose son played for the team—claimed it was founded separately from Johnson and Richardson. They spoke about doing things differently, focusing on school and football while starting fresh without involving the church. At first, Bishop Sycamore played a mostly out-of-state schedule, but the COVID-19 pandemic made scheduling games a nightmare for Ohio schools, creating an opportunity for the new school. By August 2021, the team reached its peak: the game against IMG. And who was on the sideline, getting face time on ESPN? Roy Johnson, Bishop Sycamore’s coach.

“People are saying ‘Bishop Sycamore isn’t a school,’” Johnson says incredulously during a late September interview. “Why is it not a school? ‘Well, because the kids weren’t attending classes at the address you had.’ Nobody was. It was COVID!” He feels the media coverage around the story is unfair and exaggerated. The kids are going to school for the most part, he says. And the ones who aren’t are post-graduates in the program; they don’t have to go to school.

Bishop Sycamore had a 0-3 record at the time they played Archbishop Hoban High School in Akron on Aug. 19, 2021.

This phone conversation occurs after reports emerged that Bishop Sycamore had fired Johnson. When asked if the reports are true, Johnson responds that he “pleads the Fifth.” After about six minutes, Johnson says he has to run. “Let me call you right back,” he says. I haven’t heard from him since. 

By now, Ferree is used to people ignoring him.

When he first started investigating COF Academy in 2018, he compiled all the information he could—legal cases, evidence showing players were older than reported, the lack of classrooms or even a building—and started calling athletic directors. Despite all the information, almost no one changed their course. In its first year, COF managed to schedule Ohio powerhouses like Huber Heights Wayne, Cleveland St. Ignatius and Lakewood St. Edward, along with major programs outside of Ohio like North Allegheny and IMG Academy, a game that was later canceled. Ferree says only one athletic director took any action based on his information: Willie McGee from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron. McGee thanked him and eventually canceled the game. (Reached for this article, McGee said he wasn’t interested in talking about anything related to Bishop Sycamore and didn’t remember the conversation with Ferree.)

In his stints as a sports reporter, Ferree wrote stories with the potential for impact but struggled to break into the mainstream. He covered Ohio State sports for a local blog, Columbus Wired, and broke the exclusive story of a basketball player who was suspended for drug use. No other outlet ever specified why he was suspended; no other outlet ever referenced Ferree’s story. While covering the Columbus Crew for ProSoccerUSA, a defunct offshoot of the Orlando Sentinel, he told the story of a Crew player who played a game while concussed, having never been checked by team doctors. No changes were made to MLS concussion policy and no other outlets followed up on the story.

“I always thought, ‘Man, I just don’t know what news is. My radar for what is newsworthy and what is not must just be broken,’” he says. But it wasn’t just reporters and editors who weren’t listening to him. He found plenty of ways to have his word unheeded.

The highest-profile example of Ferree’s futile warnings came in early 2018, when a bench-clearing fight broke out at a high school basketball game between Dayton Dunbar and Thurgood Marshall High School. Naturally, Ferree was tasked with investigating. OHSAA ruled that video showed several Dunbar players leaving the bench during the altercation and those players needed to serve suspensions. The school, however, declined to suspend the players. When OHSAA removed Dunbar from the association’s annual basketball tournament because of its failure to suspend those players, Dunbar sued the OHSAA in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, claiming the players in question were not involved. The case went to trial, where Ferree got his chance to showcase his blunt disposition.

“They put me up on the stand and accused me of doing a shoddy investigation,” he says. “One of the things they asked me was why I didn’t call the student’s mother to ask if her son was involved in the fight. I said, ‘Why would I waste my time? They would lie to me. People up here are lying to me right now. The head coach, principal and [athletic director] are all lying right now.’ The lawyer said, ‘So you’re going to say that under oath?’ I just said, ‘Yes.’”

Judge Michael Krumholtz disagreed, reinstating the school for the tournament. Days later, however, Ferree was vindicated when video and photos surfaced that proved he was correct. Dayton Public Schools officials made public apologies and fired Dunbar coach Chuck Taylor, while athletic director Mark Baker and principal Crystal Phillips were placed on administrative leave with pay.

Why be so brash? Why would he put himself on the line for a squabble over high school basketball? For Ferree, the more appropriate question is, “Why not?”

“I really don’t care for the politics of high school sports,” he says.

In the days before the nationally televised game against IMG, Ferree says he attempted to warn ESPN but could only reach voicemail boxes, which he assumes no one checked. Then, as the Bishop Sycamore drama unfolded before him on national television, he appreciated “announcers calling out their lies” and was somewhat surprised to see the topic explode on social media. He had spent three years trying to tell people what was happening, but “Twitter did more in three hours than I did in three years.” It was bittersweet.

Ferree wasn’t left feeling self-congratulatory or smug. If anything, Ferree says, Bishop Sycamore’s comeuppance was depressing. It reminded him of how little power he had. OHSAA is a private nonprofit; it doesn’t have any real enforcement power, and it can’t compel people to give information or subpoena a witness. To him, it’s just another layer of red tape.

“For a long time, I thought people just didn’t believe me,” says Ferree, who left OHSAA in April of this year. “Now, I think they did believe me; they just didn’t care. I did all the work; I did a good investigation, I got the right results, and I can prove it. But it doesn’t change anything. So what’s the point of knowing? If nothing is going to change, what does it matter?”

It’s tough to prove, but maybe it does matter. Beau Rugg, OHSAA’s director of officiating and sport management and Ferree’s former boss, says the organization now requires Ohio schools to play teams recognized by their state’s governing bodies, which should help remove the incentive for playing teams that aren’t real schools. As Bishop Sycamore’s story plays out, even Ferree allows himself a little hope that it will be a cautionary tale for others as schools cancel their games with Bishop Sycamore, now a national laughingstock.

At the very least, Ferree is no longer the only person talking about COF Academy or Bishop Sycamore. In the days following the ESPN game, he found himself amid a true 15 minutes of fame. He was interviewed by a host of national and local news sources and earned a shout-out from Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace. “Now, everybody’s listening to Ben Ferree,” Arace’s column began. Ferree has spent hours being interviewed on camera and is now signed on to participate in a Bishop Sycamore documentary project.

For one triumphant (or annoying one, depending on your point of view) moment, the ghost of group chats past returned to my phone. “Bishop Sycamore had a game on ESPN!” Ferree messaged me and the others. As the news unfolded in the national media, our friend Guthrie got texts from other folks asking if he had seen the story. It had all come full circle. Ferree’s ramblings had finally found their audience. “I’m happy some people might start looking out for the kids, and I’m happy for Ben that someone finally wants to listen to him,” Guthrie says.

“The joke is on them, though, because he’ll surely never shut up about it now.”

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.

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.