For nearly eight years, Ben Ferree held the title of Assistant Director of Officiating and Sport Management at the Ohio High School Athletics Association. As he described it, he did a lot of different things pertaining to when things with officials went wrong.
As part of his job, Ferree spent three years tasked into looking into Bishop Sycamore as well as an earlier iteration of the same concept, CoF Academy. Speaking with Ferree today, he walked me through his investigation of Bishop Sycamore, his thoughts on the end goal of those who run the program, and how the school continued to operate. Below are portions of our interview slightly edited for clarity.
I spent the better part of 3 years investigating COF Academy/Bishop Sycamore and screaming from the hilltops that it was a scam. The past 48 hours has been cathartic.
— Ben Ferree (@ben_ferree) August 31, 2021
On the origins of his investigation which started in the winter 0f 2017
The way the football playoffs work in Ohio is not every team makes the playoffs. It is the only sport like that in Ohio. To determine who makes the playoffs, they use a computer formula. You get more points for beating a D-1 school than beating a D-7 school. What division you are in is based on how many students you have enrolled. So that’s what started all of this. If there is a school that is not a OHSAA member school that we don’t know their enrollment, we have to call them and ask. If Grandview Heights is playing Frankfurt out of Kentucky, we have to call them and ask how many students they have. It’s usually a five-second process. It’s usually another school. So when this all pops up with COF Academy, which is what they were known as before Bishop Sycamore, we have some schools scheduling this place… never heard of them, they are in Columbus, huh, never heard of them. Call them. “Yeah, we’re new, this is our first year.”
So “How many students do you have?”
“What??” You are a first year program here in Columbus where the HQ of OHSAA is located, and you are telling me you have 750 boys? Not even just students, but boys?
“Okay, I don’t believe it…”
I said “no, you don’t.”
He said “I can show you all the applications, I can prove it.”
I said “I don’t need to see applications, I need to see the 750 students.”
They had an address that they reported to have school out of. I go to that address and no one is there. I ask the people there if they’ve ever heard of these people, and they said “No, never heard of them. There’s no school here.” Which led to them obviously being declared not a school for OHSAA purposes, and led to their school charter being revoked by the Ohio Department of Education.
On how COVID helped Bishop Sycamore schedule more prominent opponents.
In 2019, Bishop Sycamore played and they went 4-5; they actually had a decent year. But you’ll notice they didn’t play anyone in Ohio; they didn’t play any Ohio high schools. They played some big schools nationally, and they played some similar legit programs like a community school out of the Cincinnati area, which is basically Bishop Sycamore but legitimate.
They don’t go play IMG; they just play other programs like them, small high schools. And then the pandemic happened, and that was the perfect opportunity for Roy Johnson and Bishop Sycamore to bounce. All of a sudden you have schools that can’t find games, because the schools around them cancelled their seasons or weren’t playing until the spring. Or I had this game scheduled, but they just had COVID breakouts and now I have to find a game. So all of a sudden they are back on the scene. Full schedule in Ohio, play IMG, and then springboard that into their 2021 season running the same scam.
What does Ferree think the end goal was for the program?
It’s just for Roy Johnson to make money. I know he is, because it can all be proven via court records. Schools… like he will call up a powerhouse school in Maryland, and say “We will come play you but golly gee, we are this struggling organization, so you need to pay us money to pay us to get there.” And the school in Maryland will say no problem. Then all of a sudden, hey, there’s a lawsuit in Delaware County, Ohio because Roy Johnson never paid the busing company. Okay. So where did that money go? Maybe it went to the hotels? Nope. There’s a lawsuit, he never paid the hotels. Maybe it went to the helmet manufacturers? Nope, there’s a lawsuit. Never paid them. So, maybe it went to the banks where he took out loans? Nope, there’s lawsuits. He never paid the banks where he took out the loans. He just pockets the money.
How much money does Feree think could have been siphoned off from the school?
I don’t know the exact amounts. But in my job as an investigator, I had schools tell me “yes, we paid them a travel stipend.” I didn’t ask them the number because it didn’t particularly matter. So then when you see that he got paid a travel stipend but then on these court documents he never paid the travel company… where did the money go?
I’d say it’s probably in the ballpark… if it was normal from what I’ve seen from other games where I have seen game contracts, not involving Bishop Sycamore but a standard contract I’ve seen before, I’d say the ballpark figure is probably $10,000 per game.
How did schools react to his findings?
[These are] all things that I have provided to the high schools in Ohio that crop up on their schedule. They scheduled games in Maryland, IMG, that’s not my job. I’m not calling up IMG to warn them. But I tell Hoban, I tell St. Ed, St. Ignatius, and St. Vincent- St. Mary. And sometimes you will have schools like Ignatius and St.Vincent- St Mary that say “Well, that’s shady as hell. I’m cancelling the game.” Then you have schools like Hoban and St. Ed that say “Thank you for your time, we’re going to play them anyways.”
I have an email from the principal, president, whatever the proper term is of Hoban, from about a week before their game against Bishop Sycamore this year that said “Thank you for the information, but we feel we need to complete our contract for this game.” So it could be a situation where maybe they didn’t become aware until after they signed the contract… maybe they care a little, but not enough to break the contract. I don’t know. But at the very least they know and played anyway. Whatever their reasons are, are their reasons, but they played it anyway.
So if Bishop Sycamore is known to be a program that’s not on the up-and-up, why do schools keep scheduling them?
Here’s how I would explain it. If 99 percent of schools are doing the right thing, and only one percent of schools are doing the wrong thing, that’s still enough schools doing the wrong thing to let Bishop Sycamore to keep going. There are over 800 member schools in the OHSAA. If one percent of them are willing to play Bishop Sycamore, then guess what, that’s eight games. You’re the majority of the way to a football schedule.
It just takes a couple of people that don’t care to be able to perpetuate the Bishop Sycamore scam to keep going. If no one would play them, then there’s no scam. They can’t play games if no one schedules them. They only need a few people to buy in to be able to keep it going. They don’t even have to play 10 games this season. If they play five games a season, Roy Johnson can still make money that way. It doesn’t take a lot of buy-ins from a couple of people that don’t care.
Why are decision makers choosing to go forward with these games?
There is no good reason. But here is their reason. This is, I guess somewhat speculation, but this is the reason. Not every team makes the playoffs in football. So big schools have a hard time finding people that want to play them. St. Ed’s D-1 powerhouse, title contenders any given year. Hoban D-2 powerhouse, title contenders in any given year. If you are a school, why do you want to go play Hoban in the regular season and lose probably? You don’t get any playoff points for a loss. So it can be hard for them to find teams to come play them.
Even though playing against Bishop Sycamore/COF Academy does not get them any computer points and help them make the playoffs at all, they would rather still play a game than take a bye. Because that’s their options. Either don’t play football this week or play a group of 20 year olds. And they say “Yeah, we’d rather play the 20 year olds.”
Each school makes their own schedule and I fully believe that… I truly believe that if there was a better matchup for them… if Hoban had an OHSAA member approach them to play that week, I believe they would probably play the OHSAA member. But they don’t. People don’t want to play them. Now maybe with the recent expansion the playoffs just doubled from eight to 16 teams, but that just happened this year after the schedules were already made. Maybe that will help the issue, because now it will be easier to make the playoffs. Because getting a guaranteed L is not as big a deal. So maybe you go ahead and play Hoban because that’s a good experience, they are a tough team, you learn some lessons, you go ahead and take the L. That might help, but that remains to be seen.
I think the more likely scenario, and again this is just speculation on my part, is the AD at Hoban, for example, is like “Man, I cannot find a team to play us week 2. I’ve called everyone I know and I’ve got nothing.” Joe Schmoe Shady comes along and says “I can get you a game for week 2.” And he says “Great!” And they go along with it because they have exhausted all their other options. Is it possible that they sorta just sign on and outsource the work and don’t really care? It’s possible. But I think it’s more likely they have exhausted their other opportunities and then buy into what they are being sold because it fills a need. “I can’t find a game week 2, but you can find me a game week 2? Yes, please!”
Could the OHSAA have done more?
The OHSAA has no control over regular-season schedules. Their rules permit teams to play whomever they want. When COF Academy first happened in 2017-2018 and all this came about, we basically did an informal survey asking around “Hey, should we change the rule so you can only play member high schools as a result of this situation?” And the feedback that we got was “No, we don’t want you to change the rule. We 99% who are doing things right don’t want to lose scheduling opportunities just because a school might not be a OHSAA member because of the one percent that are scheduling scam schools.” That was three years ago, maybe opinions have changed? But I would wager the opinions are probably still the same. There really wasn’t more the OHSAA could do. We did an investigation and said “Wow, this is shady. This is bogus.” We informed the schools of that. Some schools like St. Ignatius took that information and said “Okay, we’re cancelling the game. Thank you.” And some schools said “Eh, we’re playing anyway.”
Did OHSAA know that Bishop Sycamore was playing two games in the same weekend and using non-high school eligible players?
I don’t think we necessarily knew about the multiple games in a weekend thing at the time, because we are informing these people before the season starts, and those things happen after the season starts. But they definitely knew about the players already having completed eight semesters of high school and therefore potentially being over age.
How did Bishop Sycamore schedule so many high profile games given they were a new program?
Going back to when this issue first occurred, so COF Academy, before anyone knew anything, they were able to schedule so many games. It’s just getting that first domino. They got one school to schedule them. Then they would call other schools and say “I’m playing School X in Week 1.” They then say “School X wouldn’t have scheduled them if they weren’t legit.” That precipitated them being able to schedule other people. That’s when the OHSAA stepped in and did the investigation and yeah, that’s all it took. It just took one school to schedule them, and that gave them the credence and they were able to schedule everyone else they wanted to.
Did Bishop Sycamore ever try to apply to be a OHSAA member?
They inquired about membership when they were COF Academy, and obviously that fell apart very quickly. Bishop Sycamore never inquired about membership, because they knew what would happen. They never even went down that road.
How will this end?
There are only two ways it possibly ends. 1) The schools succumb to public pressure. The outcry on Twitter and social media is so large and they cancel the games. You can look at the Cleveland.com story from yesterday and the St. Ed’s AD said “We are still planning on playing them.” So it doesn’t look like No. 1 is going to happen. 2) The people in charge go to jail. That’s how it ends. If that’s how it ends, that will still take probably another three to four years, because trials take a long time. So they’re not going anywhere.
Will Bishop Sycamore play more games this season or are they done?
I will say with 100% confidence that they will continue to play SOME amount of games, absolutely. The schools aren’t cancelling on them. If you are a student, “student,” a member of that football team, you aren’t bringing anything new you didn’t already know, you are living it. If you weren’t going to leave then, I would leave now.
They’ve found a way so far. That might be the thing that they’ve been able to scam companies, because they just get a different company each time and scam them each time. Maybe now they call up XYZ busing company and they say “Hey, didn’t I just see you on ESPN?” And maybe that helps, but I wouldn’t… I’m too cynical by this point in time that I’ve been screaming about these people for three to four years and nothing has happened. But I’m not holding my breath. But it is possible.
Do you feel validated that this is now out in public?
Not to sound high and mighty, but if schools had listened to me… and again this isn’t some Joe Schmoe calling and telling them, this is an employee of the OHSAA calling and telling them that this is a scam! And you take that, maybe they believed me, maybe they didn’t, but either way, they keep the games. If they had just not scheduled them, then we’re not here today. This scam stops running if they can’t find teams to play games. If people had stopped scheduling them three years ago, then we are not here today.