- An ESPN high school football broadcast featured a school called Bishop Sycamore that lost 58-0.
- The blowout raised concerns about Bishop Sycamore’s legitimacy as both a school and sports program.
- Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has called for an investigation into the program’s operations.
A high school football game shown on ESPN on Sunday pitted an elite program against a school whose legitimacy and even existence seems questionable.
The game, part of the Geico Kickoff Classic series and shown on ESPN’s main channel, featured IMG Academy, a powerhouse high school sports program out of Florida, and Bishop Sycamore, a school that claims to be in Columbus, Ohio.
But it quickly became clear that Bishop Sycamore was out-classed. By the second quarter, IMG led 30-0, and fans, viewers, and media began to look more closely at this unknown school.
USA Today’s Bailey Johnson noted that Bishop Sycamore’s website did not list an address, and Ohio’s listing for the school put its address as an indoor sports training complex. An employee of that complex told USA today that a “football-team-sized group of about 30 kids” trains there about once a month, but they hadn’t seen any schooling.
The “About” and “Staff” pages of the Bishop Sycamore website were empty, USA Today found. At the time of this writing, the entire website is blank.
CBS’s Chris Bengel, meanwhile, reported that Bishop Sycamore is not affiliated with the Ohio High School Athletic Association. And Ben Strauss of The Washington Post reported that the school was listed by the Ohio Department of Education as a non-charter, non-tax school reserved for organizations with “truly held religious beliefs.”
Even the ESPN announcers were confused.
“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,” ESPN commentator Anish Shroff said on the broadcast during the second quarter. “They did not show up in our database, they did not show up in the databases of other recruiting services.”
IMG went on to win the game 58-0.
As the bizarre sporting debacle has continued to unfold, more information has emerged about how a fledgling football program with little structure or educational legitimacy made its way onto ESPN.
A program with a questionable background
In the wake of Bishop Sycamore’s blowout loss to IMG, several people who have gone to or been affiliated with Bishop Sycamore have shared eyebrow-raising experiences.
Aaron Boyd, who says he was the first player ever recruited to Bishop Sycamore, told Complex on Monday that Bishop Sycamore players lived in a hotel for five months and went to just one day of class, which was held in a public library.
Ray Holtzclaw, whose son Judah played quarterback for Bishop Sycamore last season, told Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo that he often had to pay for hotels and meals for the players. Holtzclaw said his suspicions were raised weeks before the team’s first game, when he learned that they hadn’t practiced and didn’t have proper equipment.
A now-disabled GoFundMe in Bishop Sycamore’s name described the school as a “new football program getting established in Columbus,” according to CBS, though that description is now missing. The fundraising campaign, dated August 21, 2021, raised just $140 of its $20,000 goal.
But these questions aren’t new: A 2019 article in the Dayton Beach News-Journal reported that Mainland High School had cancelled a scheduled game against Bishop Sycamore because the school didn’t provide information about its roster or book a hotel in time.
A few people have also raised red flags about the ages of the players on the roster.
According to CBS, quarterback Trillian Harris’s Hudl profile states that he is a Bishop Sycamore quarterback in the class of 2022, but his 247Sports profile says he plays in California and is in the class of 2021.
Boyd told Complex that when he was at Bishop, several players on the roster were above high-school age.
“When I was there, I was 15 — everybody else there was 19 and 20,” Boyd said, calling his teammates “grown men.”
Holtzclaw told Awful Announcing that he tried to warn other teams that there were players on Bishop Sycamore’s roster that were older than 18.
In 2019, the Point Pleasant Register even reported that Point Pleasant High School had canceled a game against Bishop Sycamore over allegations that the roster had several players older than 18, as well as players who’d used up their four years of eligibility. (That article, though, refers to Bishop Sycamore as “YouthBuild,” a different Columbus-based school. The Post reported that Bishop Sycamore had reached out to YouthBuild to provide education for its athletes. YouthBuild’s website now says it is not affiliated with Bishop Sycamore).
ESPN used a third party to book its matchups
So how did this team end up on ESPN? After the debacle, the network explained that it had hired a third party, Paragon Marketing, to book the matchups for the Geico Kickoff Classic.
“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.”
According to the Post, Paragon in turn got help from Joe Maimone, a vice president at Billboard who runs a high school football scheduling service called Gridiron Prep Logistic on the side. Bishop Sycamore’s former coach had Maimone for help scheduling the team’s season, and Maimone reportedly told Paragon that the team could play IMG.
“They should be commended,” Maimone told the Post of Bishop Sycamore. “They’re the only school that had the guts to take on the best.”
He also took to Twitter to defend the school.
—PrepGridironLogistic (@Prep_Gridiron) August 30, 2021
To make matters worse, it also turned out that ahead of the Sunday game, Bishop Sycamore had played Sto-Rox, a Pennsylvania-based program, on Friday. That kind of quick turnaround can bring safety risks for players.
Awful Announcing also noticed that some players in Sunday’s game were playing both offense and defense, further raising their injury risk.
“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,” Shroff said on the broadcast.
Paragon told Awful Announcing that it was not aware Bishop Sycamore had played on Friday and would have cancelled the game had the company known.
On Tuesday, Ohio governor Mike DeWine called on the Ohio Board of Education to investigate Bishop Sycamore’s operations.