When Bishop Sycamore took the field in Canton, Ohio, on Sunday to face IMG Academy (Florida), ESPN's announcers thought they'd be calling a game between two elite high school football teams.
It didn't take long for it to become clear that one of those teams wasn't what it said it was.
Bishop Sycamore — which claims to be based in Columbus, though there's no address listed on the website, and the "About Us" and "Staff" pages on the site are blank — was overmatched from the beginning as it took on the No. 2 team in the country, according to MaxPreps.
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The game quickly caught national attention as it was broadcast on ESPN's main channel. Social media was aflame with questions about how Bishop Sycamore came to be scheduled for the game, when it clearly was not fit to be playing against a team of IMG's caliber.
ESPN announcer: This is not a fair fight
Midway through the second quarter, as Bishop Sycamore trailed 30-0, commentator Anish Shroff acknowledged that ESPN hadn't been able to find evidence to support Bishop Sycamore's claims that it brought a roster laden with Division I talent.
"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," Shroff said. "They did not show up in our database, they did not show up in the databases of other recruiting services. So, OK, that’s what you’re telling us, fine, that’s how we take it in. From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a fair fight, and there’s got to be a point where you’re worried about health and safety."
This is what happens when ESPN gets duped into airing a high school football game between the most talented team in the country and an online charter school nobody has heard of, went 0-6 last year, and lied about its roster to get on TV. pic.twitter.com/QUwM8BQKiY
— Ben Koo (@bkoo) August 29, 2021
After the game, which IMG won 58-0, Shroff responded to comments on Twitter that Bishop Sycamore was the only school in Ohio willing to play IMG.
"Sorry," Shroff wrote. "They had no business being in that game today. None. I feel bad for the kids. Player health and safety was at risk today. It was uncomfortable for anyone who watched."
Marketing group scheduled the game, not ESPN
ESPN itself didn't schedule the game, which was part of the GEICO ESPN High School Football Kickoff. Paragon Marketing Group took care of finding matchups and providing them to ESPN, as the companies' relationship spans nearly 20 years.
“We regret that this happened and have discussed it with Paragon, which secured the matchup and handles the majority of our high school event scheduling," ESPN said in a statement. "They have ensured us that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward.”
A spokesman for Paragon told USA TODAY Sports that transfers at the prep level, especially for an online school, can make confirming rosters difficult. The roster they were presented with a month ago was drastically different than the one for the game against IMG Academy, the spokesman said, adding that a more scrutinized look within 10 days was likely necessary.
A normal vetting process, said the spokesman, includes research into the coaching staff, a cross-check of the roster with recruiting rankings, the previous years’ schedules and the upcoming season’s strength of schedule.
Bishop Sycamore has multiple matchups against powerhouses remaining in 2021, with opponents including Duncanville (Texas), St. Edward (Ohio) and DeMatha Catholic (Maryland).
Bishop Sycamore played Friday and Sunday
Bishop Sycamore lost 19-7 to Sto-Rox on Friday night before facing IMG on Sunday. Speaking on Twitter Spaces on Monday, Bishop Sycamore coach Roy Johnson said about 15 players played in both games, though he said most of them played only small portions.
The Friday night game was never disclosed to Paragon and wasn’t on the schedule the company had for Bishop Sycamore. The company only became aware of the transgression Sunday evening once they began receiving questions, according to a Paragon spokesperson.
"(Playing two games in three days) is against any high school rule, but they don't have to abide by those rules not being a high school," Akron Archbishop Hoban athletic director and football coach Tim Tyrell said. "They're not a high school."
What is Bishop Sycamore?
It isn't clear if Bishop Sycamore is a school at all for the 2021-22 school year.
The Ohio Department of Education lists no charter school by that name, but last year the department listed Bishop Sycamore as a "non-chartered, non-tax supported school," a type of school that "because of truly held religious beliefs, choose to not be chartered by the State Board of Education."
Each non-chartered, non-tax supported school must certify in a report to parents at the start of each school year that it meets the Ohio school operating standards in a report that must be filed with the Ohio Department of Education. No one from the department's communications office returned a telephone call Monday, and it was unclear if Bishop Sycamore filed that report.
Non-chartered, non-tax supported schools must report their students' participation and attendance to their local school district treasurer, which for Bishop Sycamore the state lists as Columbus City Schools. Columbus schools couldn't immediately say whether the school filed anything with it for last school year.
The state lists Bishop Sycamore's mailing address as a post office box, and its "physical address" as 3599 Chiller Lane in Columbus — the address of Resolute Athletic Complex, an indoor sports facility near Easton Town Center.
An official there told the Columbus Dispatch that a football team-sized group of about 30 kids work out in the complex's weight room and turf fields about once a month, but no school classes have ever been located at the site. The person spoke with the Dispatch on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
"They don't have an actual school here," the person said. "Not schooling. We're just like their training facility."
Johnson said they operate the schooling out of the facility "a few days a week." He later said Bishop Sycamore rents the facility "once in a while."
The complex's contact for the school is Andre Peterson, who the state also lists as the school's contact.
"I think he's like the coordinator, I guess you could say," the person from the sports complex said. "I think he's like the funding guy."
A recruiting address listed online comes back to the library at Franklin University in Downtown Columbus. A person answering the phone at the library said Bishop Sycamore rented a room there last year but doesn't anymore.
Johnson said Monday that Bishop Sycamore's 2021-22 enrollment begins on Sept. 1 and the education will be through Excel, an online school.
Coaches warn of 'red flags'
In addition to the questions about the academic legitimacy of Bishop Sycamore's program, the football aspect doesn't appear much stronger. Since becoming a program in 2020, Bishop Sycamore has yet to win a game and has been outscored 342-49.
Bishop Sycamore is not a member of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, which requires member schools to play at least two sports in each of the fall, winter and spring seasons. OHSAA spokesman Tim Stried said OHSAA schools are allowed to play non-member schools, which can help teams fill out their schedule — as Bishop Sycamore did in July when it was added to Hoban's schedule.
Tyrell said he and Peterson spoke in the summer about scheduling the game, and Tyrell doesn't recall any red flags in those initial interactions. But when game week arrived, things began to feel unusual to Tyrell.
"The week of the game it was a little bit — some things were a little bit off-putting, not having rosters, not having who was actually playing, that type of stuff," Tyrell said. "But during the game, we didn't have any issues, other than a jersey issue. They didn't have their (light) jerseys so they had to go in the dark jersey."
Tyrell received calls from coaches who have previously played Bishop Sycamore, as well as anonymous emails, warning him to keep an eye on the roster and the ages of Bishop Sycamore's players, many of whom are believed to be older than 19 years old.
One parent, whose son was a member of the program in the summer before leaving the team, said his son was one of the younger players on the roster at age 18.
But when Tyrell brought those concerns to Peterson, he was assured that what he'd been told wasn't true.
"I trusted him and we got through the game without any incident," Tyrell said. "... There isn't anything negative to say about the actual game. The organization side of things leading up to the game, yes. I would second anything anyone says on that side of things about them not being organized, for sure."
247Sports reported that one player who appeared on defense for Bishop Sycamore was originally in the 2020 recruiting class and had previously used a fake ID to attend a seven-on-seven camp, while falsely claiming more than two dozen offers.
Coach says Bishop Sycamore a young, growing program
Johnson hit back Monday against the criticism of his program. He painted the program as a young, growing program that needs help to get off the ground and wants to help underprivileged young men create better lives for themselves.
But after over 90 minutes of the interview, no clear answers emerged from Johnson about how Bishop Sycamore operates, how the school hopes to get its athletes into college or how the team ended up on ESPN. Johnson openly solicited advice and guidance from reporters and others who asked questions during the conversation.
"We want to do better," Johnson said. "All the things that you're saying, I'm acknowledging. ... This is a request for help, wherever we can receive it from. I'm not looking at some of the things we probably should've looked at, like making sure we have a functional website that explains more about what we do."
After over an hour of Johnson speaking, Peterson, whose son is in the program, jumped into the conversation.
"I'm not gonna quit," he said. "I've never quit anything in my life. ... To quit would mean I'm quitting on my son, quitting on my family and quitting on these other 49 young men who are depending on me.
"... If you really care, then help. I can take criticism all day long and I totally understand it. There's a lot of things we've opened ourselves up to be criticized about."
Dispatch reporter Bill Bush and USA TODAY reporter Chris Bumbaca contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Bishop Sycamore HS football team shrouded in mystery after ESPN game