Michael Arace: 'It's a scam,' but sadly, Bishop Sycamore scheme was not a secret around here

Michael Arace
The Columbus Dispatch
Bishop Sycamore quarterback Jailen Knight is sacked by Akron Archbishop Hoban defensive end Grant Thompson on Aug. 19. Since 2020, Bishop Sycamore is winless and has been outscored 342-49.

Now, everybody’s listening to Ben Ferree. 

For nearly four years — from the time Christians of Faith Academy and its football team suddenly appeared in Columbus, through the time when COF folded and was reinvented as Bishop Sycamore, right on up to last Sunday, when Bishop Sycamore became a nationally televised spectacle — Ferree has been screaming, “It’s a scam.” 

Bishop Sycamore lost 58-0 to IMG Academy, one of the top-ranked teams in the nation, on ESPN. As the blowout expanded, ESPN’s announcers said they were misled by claims that Bishop Sycamore was stocked with Division I prospects, worried aloud about injuries which could result from the physical mismatch and apologized for viewers for airing a car wreck. 

From out of nowhere, a school no one had ever heard of had apparently duped The Worldwide Leader in Sports into believing it was a national powerhouse worthy of viewing on the big network. Who or what was/is Bishop Sycamore

Journalists, be they mainstream, alternative or the merely curious, spent the week peeling this onion. There is no end to the layers.

High school football:Bishop Sycamore's opponents back out, but team not going away quietly

As Dispatch reporter Bill Bush summarizes, Bishop Sycamore is a school that “doesn’t appear to exist anywhere except on paper, the internet, and some contend in the minds of its founders, who … may have used it as a vehicle to build a touring football organization.” 

Now, everybody’s listening to Ferree. He’s the former director of officiating and sports management at the Ohio High School Athletic Association. 

He began looking into the Christians of Faith Academy, the forerunner of Bishop Sycamore, in the winter of 2017-18. At the time, COF began popping up on the schedules of OHSAA-certified schools.  

Ferree’s investigation began innocently enough; he had to know what COF’s enrollment was for the purposes of calculating playoff points. He was told “750.” He said, “No way.” 

Bishop Sycamore is 'a scam for Roy Johnson to make money'

“Bishop Sycamore is all about making money for (coach) Roy Johnson, period, full stop, end of story,” Ferree said. “It’s a scam for Roy Johnson to make money. I’ve been blowing that whistle, hard, for three years. And let me tell you, not enough people listened.” 

Ferree said he pitched the story to The Dispatch, which demurred. He then went to a Dispatch subsidiary, ThisWeekNews. Andrew King investigated and wrote an excellent, multi-part series on COF in the 2018.  

Out of the ashes of COF — which ultimately folded after the Ohio Department of Education revoked its registration (and there’s a lot more to that story) — rose Bishop Sycamore. 

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In 2019, the football team won four games. Since 2020, it is winless and has been outscored 342-49. 

“All the same people are involved,” Ferree said. “They take money in and never put money out.” 

According to Ferree, it works something like this: 

Johnson lures football players, the majority of whom have already completed four years of secondary school, with the promise of exposure to big-time college recruiters. A season is built around playing power programs, which are always scraping to find enough opponents and don’t mind cannon fodder. 

Roy Johnson was among the leaders at Christians of Faith Academy before becoming the football coach at Bishop Sycamore.

The power programs pay up front for Bishop Sycamore’s travel and, Ferree said, “That money just goes into Roy Johnson’s pocket.” 

Ferree continued, “They charge tuition, $1,000 to $2,000. That’s just walking-around money for Roy Johnson. The bigger money is in the travel expenses, when they say, ‘Give us $10,000.’ For schools like IMG, that’s nothing. Done. That money never makes it to the hotels or the bus companies. We know this from all the lawsuits.” 

Johnson was sued by a Delaware hotel for failing to pay a bill of $110,685.40 in 2018. According to the Canton Repository, Bishop Sycamore skipped out on a $3,596 hotel bill in Canton after Sunday night’s game.  

Michael Arace

How many of these incidents were there in between?  

How many lawsuits? USA Today reported that Johnson and Jay Richardson — a former Ohio State player who serves as a football analyst for ABC6/Fox28, and, according to King’s reporting, was once listed as COF Academy’s athletic director — have faced “a string of lawsuits alleging hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid loans and bills.” 

Numerous attempts by The Dispatch to reach Johnson over the course of the week did not receive a response.

More and more details are beginning to surface as more layers of the onion are peeled. Former players and parents of players are telling their stories about Bishop Sycamore. 

Complex, a media company that focuses on youth culture, did an extended interview with two unnamed players. The ugliest detail has to do with the beating of a homeless man, but there’s a lot of sad stuff in their story. 

Massillon's Austin Brawley tackles Bishop Sycamore's Daivon Lowman on Sept. 4, 2020.

Our Bailey Johnson spoke to Ray Holtzclaw, father of a former player, who described a host of issues (including multiple incidents of stiffing hotels). 

Ferree never stopped investigating Bishop Sycamore. Even when he left the OHSAA earlier this year to take a PR job with the Grove City Police Department, he continued to blow the whistle. 

He said he called Akron Archbishop Hoban in August, before Hoban was scheduled to play Bishop Sycamore in its home opener. He tried to alert ESPN prior to the game against IMG, but got no response. 

“Given the chance of not playing a football game and morally supporting a scam,” Ferree said, “the schools in Ohio choose to do the latter.” 

Not just Ohio. Anywhere anyone needs a game, and can pay, Bishop Sycamore will play.  At least, that’s the way it was last week. 

This week is different. The rest of Bishop Sycamore’s schedule has been canceled by its opponents. 

Gov. Mike DeWine has called for an investigation to judge whether Bishop Sycamore meets minimum educational standards required by the state. 

According to the school’s athletic director, Andre Peterson, Bishop Sycamore and Johnson have parted ways. 

“Funny, that’s what they said three years ago after COF went under,” Ferree said. “Don’t believe them.” 

I have an axiom: When there is a problem with youth sports, it’s rarely the kids — it's the adults. The tale of Bishop Sycamore is an example writ large.

A Bishop Sycamore punter is upended against Archbishop Hoban on Aug. 19.  Since 2020, Bishop Sycamore is winless and has been outscored 342-49.

There are any number of involved grownups who felt that the school had an altruistic bent to it, who wanted to help underprivileged kids further their athletic and academic careers. To give them a better chance. Or a second chance.

There were any number of young people who were probably helped. 

It’s all crashing down now because at least one man used altruism as a cloak for something else. A confidence man. He sold a dream, he bailed on the team and, in the end, the saddest part hangs in a question.

What do those young people do now?