"Do I look like a con artist?"
This is the question that Roy Johnson, the disgraced coach at the center of the Bishop Sycamore high school football scandal, asked a young HBO cameraman a few minutes after arriving for his first sitdown interview last year.
It's also the theme that pulses through the resulting (and aptly-named) documentary, "BS High," which debuts on HBO's streaming platform Max on Wednesday night at 9 p.m.
The long-awaited film comes nearly two years after Bishop Sycamore's 58-0 loss to IMG Academy on ESPN, which led to national ridicule, a state investigation and a realization that the self-proclaimed school did not actually exist.
Directors Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free offer a meticulous and jarring re-examination of the viral story, with insight from former Bishop Sycamore players, parents and others associated with the program, as well as the journalist and former state athletic association investigator who first uncovered the fraud. But they also cast a bright, uncomfortable spotlight on Johnson, the scheming coach in the middle of it all.
"We saw this thing very quickly as sort of a portrait of a con man," Roe told USA TODAY Sports in an interview.
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Free and Roe said they had three 10-hour interview days with Johnson at the start of the filming process, then a fourth day at the end to press him on factual discrepancies and get his responses to claims made against him. Former players and parents alleged, among other things, that Johnson forged a check by printing it from scratch at Kinko's, ran over a gaggle of geese and helped players take out loans in their names under a COVID-19 relief program, supposedly to pay for tuition costs. (Johnson denied each of those claims but admitted to accidentally hitting one goose with his car.)
Roe said he found Johnson to be "charming and funny and smart," but also "a completely amoral manipulator" who was "predatory" in the way he sought out players and took advantage of them. One of the key challenges of making the documentary, Free added, was "getting as much of the truth out of Roy as we could."
"In the beginning, (we) allow him to treat you, the viewer, in the way that he treats all of his subjects, all the people that he’s attempting to con − by making you think that he has all the best intentions, he’s a good person," Free explained. "And then the thread gets pulled and it unravels, and you see exactly who he is, what he is and what he’s done.
"It’s not our opinion, it’s not the way we shape it. We let Roy say everything he wanted to say, and we didn’t edit any of the things he had to say, to make them feel or fit a certain way. You get Roy unfiltered, and you get the fallout from that, from the people who were impacted."
Early on in the process, Johnson asked Roe and Free to interview specific former players from Bishop Sycamore − including quarterback Trillian Harris and lineman J.D. Daniel − because he thought they would cast him in a positive light and balance the story. But when the directors reached out to those players, Roe said, the opposite was true.
"It was sort of extraordinary," Roe said, "to be told, 'Go talk to these people, because they’re the ones that are going to defend me.' And they’re the ones who are like, 'This guy was not a coach, it was not a school, he caused me irreparable physical harm.'"
In a particularly poignant moment, the documentary shows Johnson storming out of an interview after being shown clips of former players talking about the ways he damaged their lives. One player breaks down in tears, while another calls him "evil." A parent laments that Johnson "royally (expletive) my kid up."
Johnson, for his part, describes himself in the film as more of a hustler than a con man. "I think I'm the most honest liar that I know," he says at one point. When confronted about the trail of unpaid bills and lawsuits he left in his wake with Bishop Sycamore – and its predecessor, Christians of Faith Academy – he says it wasn't that he intended not to pay, just that "life happened" and he couldn't make it work.
"My philosophy of business is do what the people who have the money do, even if you don't have the money," he says in the documentary.
Johnson filed for bankruptcy in Ohio late last month, according to court records and first reported by online sports media outlet Awful Announcing. He claims in a bankruptcy filing that he owes more than $306,000 to a string of creditors and has just $12,096 in total assets. He lists a CashApp account with $9 as his only checking account.
According to documents in another court case, Johnson was not paid directly for his participation in the HBO documentary, though one of the production companies involved in the project, SMAC Entertainment, acquired the rights to his life story in 2021 "in connection with a scripted project." SMAC was co-founded by Constance Schwartz-Morini and former NFL player Michael Strahan, who are both executive producers on "BS High."
Ben Ferree, who investigated Bishop Sycamore during his previous job at the Ohio High School Athletic Association, is also featured in the documentary. He believes its release will make Johnson "somewhat famous − or infamous" but hopes viewers come away with a more expansive takeaway − that flaws in the system allowed Johnson to run such a scam in the first place.
"Really, nothing has changed that would prevent or really dissuade anyone from attempting something like this again," said Ferree, the co-author of a forthcoming book titled "Friday Night Lies: The Bishop Sycamore Story."
While Ferree provides key context in "BS High," much of the story is driven by former players who were impacted. Roe and Free, who won an Oscar for their 2020 short film "Two Distant Strangers," said their team spoke with more than 30 former players in connection with the documentary. Nine are shown in the final version.
"For me, especially, it was important to highlight the fact that this was not only an abuse of power and an abuse of children, it was specifically an abuse of underprivileged and poor Black kids," Free said.
"Roy preyed very specifically on these kids' dreams to be college and professional football players. And it’s a really dark and sinister thing to do."
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on social media @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bishop Sycamore documentary "BS High" on HBO revisits football scandal