Roy Johnson in a "BS High" interview. Roy Johnson in a “BS High” interview. (HBO.)

“We get our ass kicked, they plaster me all over there, the New York Times writes a story about me, calling me crazy, calling me a con artist, we still win. You know why? Because the gang got me on the phone with Michael Strahan, and now I’m talking to you. I love it. I love it when a plan comes together.” – Roy Johnson interview with BS High directors Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free.

From Cicero’s quotation of Lucius Cassius’ “Qui bono?” through Deep Throat’s “Follow the money,” determining who gains and how from any particular course of action is often essential to consider. And it’s the critical question around BS High, the documentary on the Bishop Sycamore scandal that debuts Wednesday on HBO at 9 p.m. ET (and is also available on Max).

The film certainly answers who did not benefit, including the players for Bishop Sycamore High School and predecessor Christians of Faith Academy. They wound up with injuries, traumatizing experiences, potential credit hits from evictions and seemingly-fraudulent loans, and more. Others coming out on the losing side are the individuals and companies that provided those schools with services and were not paid.

But BS High intensely focuses on coach and founder Roy Johnson. And Johnson believes he did benefit. As noted above in a quote from near the end of this film, Johnson believes that even appearing in this documentary is a win for him. Is he right about that? That’s the most crucial question about BS High, and it has no easy answer.

The documentary, fortunately, is far from an unchallenged venue for Johnson. The directors ask him tough questions, leading to him getting visibly agitated and storming out of the interview room at one point (and to his subsequent conversation with a producer being filmed and used). And they smartly contrast his remarks on the saga with interviews from players (at least nine players from COF Academy and Bishop Sycamore are interviewed), family members, former OSHAA investigator Ben Ferree, journalist Andrew King, sports analyst Bomani Jones, early COF/BS figure John Branham Sr., and others.

When this was announced, there were concerns that this project would be a soft-focus piece on Johnson. Those notably showed up given one of the companies behind BS High, Michael Strahan’s SMAC Entertainment. SMAC’s Strahan and Constance Schwartz-Morini are amongst the many executive producers here, a list also including Adam McKay and Todd Schulman for Hyperobject Industries, Ankur Chawla and Alex Mather for The Athletic, Jay Peterson and Todd Lubin for Boat Rocker’s Matador Content, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller and Bentley Weiner for HBO, and directors Free and Roe. (The film also has Jack Turner and Spencer Paysinger as producers and Abtin Motia as a coordinating producer for HBO.)

And Johnson has had some level of financial relationship with SMAC. He refused to say much to The New York Times in December 2021, saying he had “sold the rights” to Strahan and “everything will come out in the documentary.” And last summer, in one of the many civil court cases around Bishop Sycamore and Christians of Faith, an Ohio bank filed to block SMAC from paying Johnson anything until his debts were cleared. (Those debts may never be fully repaid; Johnson filed for bankruptcy this summer.)

SMAC has maintained that “We entered into an agreement to option and acquire the exclusive rights to Roy Johnson’s life story in connection with a potential scripted project. He was not paid for participating in the documentary.” But that’s still money flowing from them to him. So Johnson indeed has received, or has the potential to receive, some level of financial compensation (no one was acquiring “the exclusive rights to his life story” without the national news this drew) out of the Bishop Sycamore saga so far.

And yes, the documentary itself presents a highly critical view of Johnson. It’s a vastly detailed (with some omissions or missed opportunities for further exploration, which we’ll get to) blow-by-blow examination of what happened with COF and Bishop Sycamore, including information on bounced checks, unpaid bills, poor food arrangements, poor safety arrangements, violations of age rules, lack of coaching permits, seemingly-fraudulent loans, and more. And it features sometimes-combative interviews with Johnson, but he had to know that was coming on some level.

Former Bishop Sycamore coach Roy Johnson in documentary "BS High."
Former Bishop Sycamore coach Roy Johnson in documentary “BS High.” (HBO.)

Johnson’s “I love it when a plan comes together” quote at the top (which goes back to an early-in-the-documentary scene where he talks about his love for The A-Team and their desperate plans, and his admiration for leader John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), who often used that quote) illustrates he still sees this exposure as a victory.

Indeed, the film concludes with Johnson saying, “After talking to you guys, I can feel the trajectory of my life is going to change significantly,” Roe asks, “For better or worse?” and Johnson says, “Better.” And BS High’s final spoken lines are Johnson saying, “I feel something I haven’t felt in a long time. Peace. What did DJ Khaled say? All we do is win, win, win, no matter what.”

On some levels, that seems absurd. BS High presents a scathing indictment of Johnson overall and a detailed examination of how his Bishop Sycamore schemes blew up in his face. And things do not seem to have been going great for him since; the film’s end titles note that his domestic abuse case ended with a plea deal to a lesser menacing charge, that he owes more than $300,000 in fines and settlements related to COF and Bishop Sycamore, and that December 2022 saw him arrested for stealing from an Ohio Best Buy while using the fake name Tristan Hershtol.

But even caught con artists (a label Johnson doesn’t accept, but one he’s regularly tagged with; he does accept “liar,” however, but says he doesn’t lie to those loyal to him) sometimes bounce back surprisingly. That’s particularly true if they’re famous enough. A few examples there include the ticket sales for Billy McFarland’s Fyre Festival 2 and the popularity of Frank Abagnale’s (the subject of his own Catch Me If You Can semi-autobiography, which the Steven Spielberg film is based on) books, and there are many more. Exposure has benefits.

The exposure here started with Bishop Sycamore’s nationally televised game against IMG Academy on ESPN in August 2021. The discussion of that is one of the most notable parts of this film, illustrating just how much of the plan that national exposure was for Johnson and the “school.” There, Johnson says, “We’re on ESPN, playing at the Canton Hall of Fame. Win, lose, or draw, we win.”

And, yes, the prominence of that game led to many of the high-profile investigations (including on this site) into Bishop Sycamore and the school’s eventual unraveling. As Jones notes, that started even on the broadcast, which was remarkable. “It takes a lot for a broadcast crew to be critical of what they are seeing in real-time. It had to be so transparently fraudulent that people who were on the payroll to promote this event could not keep up the story.”

But that game also led to this moment where Johnson is sitting on camera interviewing for a documentary. And that’s a documentary partly produced by a company that optioned the rights to his life story. As Bishop Sycamore athletic director Andre Peterson (also interviewed, both alongside Johnson and separately) notes in the documentary, “The reason I’m sitting here in this chair is because we played the No. 1 team in the country on national TV.” So it indeed led to at least that for them.

With that in mind, it’s worth discussing some potential omissions and undercovered aspects of the Bishop Sycamore story in BS High. The biggest revelation in the documentary is of federal government Paycheck Plan Protection (PPP) loans taken out in players’ names.

It’s strongly hinted that Johnson or someone else with the school was involved with those PPP loans. Player Kymetrius Gates, in particular, notes that he never gave his Social Security number to anyone else, says he asked the school to tear up that document after he did so (once his father questioned why they needed that information), and says they told him they did. Then, the BS High directors present him with paperwork showing a $20,833 PPP loan in his name for a shoe store, which he says he never took out. Other players also say Johnson encouraged them to take out loans, and the directors show PPP loans in several players’ names for barbershops and other businesses.

But Johnson denies involvement with the loans on camera, saying, “The school didn’t just get $100,000, $500,000, and we just had it anywhere. That did not happen. I did not tell 20, 30, 40 kids to all take out PPP loans from the United States government. I don’t even trust the United States government. They were just on my ass!” And the documentary leaves it at that. Perhaps that’s the best they could do, but it certainly would be worthwhile for reporters to try and dig more to find out who those PPP checks went to and what happened to that money.

Beyond that, there are questions about Bishop Sycamore’s involvement with others beyond Johnson, including Peterson (who eventually fired Johnson as coach after the IMG game).  Peterson then claimed the school wasn’t a scam (a name it later received in an official Ohio Department of Education report) because no one benefited financially, but that has yet to be particularly checked.

And while the documentary has some comments from Peterson here and there, it doesn’t illustrate his role with the school. It also doesn’t ask what he knew about unpaid bills, bounced checks, seemingly fraudulent loans, player accommodation/food/safety issues, and what, if anything, he did when he found out. And his comment, “I don’t necessarily think you can say there was a gap between what was promised and what was delivered. I guess, in a way, you probably could say that. I guess,” when it comes to the “education” provided (or often not provided, as the documentary shows) could use some follow-up questions.

The documentary does not mention Jay Richardson, the former Ohio State player turned ABC6/Fox28 (Columbus) sports analyst. Richardson has claimed “zero involvement with Bishop Sycamore,” but our reporting in 2021 strongly disputed that.

Richardson has been named in many of the lawsuits around COF and Bishop Sycamore (he, Johnson, and The Richard Allen Group were found owing $120,000 in January 2022). Richardson was listed as athletic director on some paperwork and had his name on an early version of the school crest. And he featured Bishop Sycamore players on his Fox28 sports show in 2019, congratulating them for playing multiple games on the weekend.

Richardson’s involvement level (who continues as an analyst with those Sinclair-owned Columbus stations) and others in the COF/Bishop Sycamore saga have never been fully explored. And BS High certainly doesn’t help there. Bishop Sycamore and COF seemingly were not a one-person operation, with Johnson making all decisions, as the litigation illustrates. But the documentary presents it as almost entirely Johnson’s show.

Speaking of those multiple games in a weekend, that’s another area that could have used more exploration in BS High. The documentary accurately illustrates how much of a problem playing two football games in a weekend is given the physicality of the sport, with comments to that effect from Jones, Ferree, and Prep Gridiron Logistics founder Joe Maimone (who says he “had no idea” about the Sto Rox game two days before the IMG game, and “would definitely have told them my feelings or talked them out of it” if he had known). But it presents that as a one-off situation, when reporting and comments from people like Richardson illustrate that it happened more than once with COF and Bishop Sycamore. 

Maimone’s involvement here also could have used more questions. He’s barely featured in the documentary, talking only about how he helped put together Bishop Sycamore’s 2021 schedule and how impressive it was for them to play national powerhouses nationwide.

There’s no information in the documentary on how much Maimone knew about Bishop Sycamore players’ ages and eligibility, the small roster, the equipment and injury situations, and the lack of a “school” entirely. And he isn’t asked if any of that would make a difference to him in helping to book games for them. And, if it would, it would undoubtedly be notable to hear what precautions he’d take to avoid a recurrence of the Bishop Sycamore-IMG game, which resulted in not just an embarrassment but in several unique injuries (including torn ACLs) with no training staff to treat them.  Similarly, no one from ESPN is interviewed about how that 2021 game happened and how they’re working to avoid repeating that dangerous situation.

However, BS High is a solid summary of the Bishop Sycamore situation. It’s a detailed exploration of many COF/Bishop Sycamore particulars. It’s appropriately placed in the context of other football-focused schools but also illustrates how this “fake school” went well beyond what’s seen elsewhere. And it’s a fascinating study of central figure Johnson, and it’s notable to get him on the record here.

Many of those comments from Johnson might be used against him in the future, such as “legally, I did not commit any fraud” (a lot of the people and institutions suing him would disagree). And there are a lot of great lines on him, such as Ferree’s “He opened my mind to what fraud could be. I had no idea of the depth of things you could get away with,” and Jones’ “What amazes me about this particular con is the dream for this con was for everybody to see it.” And Johnson has some remarkable lines himself, including an unhinged rant against the players criticizing him:

“There’s a part of me that wants to go ‘You entitled, selfish, lying-a** n******. I saved you a year! That’s why you were coming there! Because you didn’t have a college to go to anyway! That’s why you came! So because you had nowhere to go, you came, and you came to get that extra year. It served its purpose. It gave you a chance to do that. How did I dash your dreams? How did I keep you from going anywhere? You still went to college.”

That rant and Johnson’s further contesting of the claims against him show that he hasn’t reformed from this. Early in the documentary, Roe asks, “Was it irresponsible to keep pushing forward even though you didn’t have the money?” he says, “Yes.” Roe asks, “Would you do it again?” and Johnson says, “Yes.” Towards the documentary’s end, Johnson seemingly indicates a desire to rerun a Bishop Sycamore-style school (something Peterson has also mentioned in the past, at least when it comes to kids’ desire to play there). Here’s the back half of Johnson’s monologue after the “I love it when a plan comes together” part quoted up top:

“Now I’ve got a platform to raise funds, to talk about what happened, to talk about what the program was about. You want to hear something that’s crazy about all this? More than 15 schools, after they canceled our season, want to play us next year. You thought Bishop Sycamore was going anywhere? You thought the stories that we made, the names that we called, you thought this was going somewhere? You didn’t think we were going to climb that tree. I can just see it now, just the apologies. You don’t have to apologize to me, just to them, to the players, all those people you said didn’t exist. You owe them an apology.”

While Johnson isn’t great coming out of this, he has gained a considerable amount of national exposure from this story. And this documentary is part of that. And maybe that plan will all come together with major financial and other rewards for Johnson in some form some way down the road, whether that’s with another “school,” a speaking tour, the aforementioned unscripted project, a book, or more. And perhaps the extra exposure for him from BS High will be part of that.

The documentary illustrates the profound negative effects Johnson and Bishop Sycamore had on many players’ lives. And it tells their stories as well as Johnson’s, and those deserve to be out there. And having Johnson on the record is absolutely important, as is showing the many different dimensions of what happened with Bishop Sycamore and how something similar could easily happen again in some form. And BS High generally does that well, and the quibbles above aren’t a big deal.

And this story absolutely needed a documentary-length treatment (or more than one). And while this one comes with extra questions considering SMAC’s relationship with Johnson, the end product is relatively solid. But it’s hard to get past that final line of Johnson saying “All I do is win.”

That’s notable here, as it certainly doesn’t look like anyone else won, especially the players. And many of them lost significantly. But Johnson managed to get some deal with SMAC, and he appears confident on camera that BS High is going to change that trajectory of his life “for better.” We’ll see if he proves to be right that he will benefit from this.

BS High premieres on HBO on Aug. 23 at 9 p.m. ET, and is also available to stream on Max.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.