Sep 1, 2021 - Sports

The curious case of the Bishop Sycamore football team

Illustration of an outline of a football on a kickoff stand.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

What began this week as a funny headline — "High school dupes ESPN, ends up on national TV" — has taken a dramatic turn, unearthing one of the wildest sagas in years.

Catch up quick: On Sunday, ESPN aired a high school football game between IMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida) and Bishop Sycamore (Columbus, Ohio). IMG won, 58-0.

  • Following the game, ESPN claimed Bishop Sycamore lied about having D-I prospects and falsified its roster, which included many 19-and 20-year-olds.
  • We then learned that Bishop Sycamore had played another game in Pennsylvania two days prior — and that the mysterious school was not actually a "school" at all.

The aftermath: Bishop Sycamore was set to play the nation's fourth-hardest schedule, but most opponents (and a streaming service) have backed out. The head coach was let go on Tuesday, and the school's website — which was mostly blank pages — has been shut down.

Now, for the backstory...

What we know: Bishop Sycamore used to operate under the name Christians of Faith Academy. When COF Academy collapsed in 2018 amid fraud allegations, it rebranded.

  • Bishop Sycamore claims to be an online-only charter school based out of Columbus. But the Ohio Department of Education lists no charter school by that name.
  • The state lists the school's physical address as an indoor sports facility, where the football team works out about once a month, an employee told the Columbus Dispatch.
  • A recruiting address found online points to the library at Franklin University in Columbus, where Bishop Sycamore appears to have rented a room in the past, ostensibly for "classes."
  • The football team hasn't won a game since launching 2019, while getting outscored 342-49 and playing most games with a shorthanded roster.

What they're saying: Former players and parents have shared their stories this week. Aaron Boyd, who played for COF Academy in 2018, painted a particularly alarming picture.

"[When] I first moved out there, we were staying in a hotel ... for like five months. ... We didn't go to school [and] didn't have practice. We just went to games."
"They recruited us telling us we were gonna be on [Netflix]. They told us we're gonna be the IMG of the Midwest. They lied to me and my mama."
Boyd, via Complex

The other side: Andre Peterson, Bishop Sycamore's founder, director and offensive/defensive line coach, denies that the program is a scam.

  • "I'm not gaining anything financially from what we're doing," he told USA Today, adding that his son plays on the team. "If it's a scam ... then I'm literally scamming myself [and] hurting my own son."
  • Peterson has no plans to shut down. "For me to start all over and send them home ... would be a disservice to them. I just know that we have things to get right."

Between the lines: The irony of this saga is that IMG is also not really a "school." Like Bishop Sycamore (and others), it exists almost solely for sports. Unlike Bishop Sycamore, it's not fraudulent.

The bottom line: If Sunday's game had been closer, this never would have become such big news. Instead, Bishop Sycamore is now infamous — and might never play another football game.

  • "Bishop Sycamore's undoing was not its abhorrent practices, ultimately. It was its inability to play football at a high enough level," writes Defector's Casey Taylor.
  • "This has been going on in Columbus for three or four years now," said a former Ohio High School Athletic Association employee. "No one cared until it started trending on Twitter."
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