High school football team lied about number of college recruits to score a game on ESPN, reports say

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Posted at 3:35 PM, Aug 31, 2021

An Ohio high school football team misrepresented the number of top-tier college recruits on its roster in order to play a nationally televised game on ESPN, according to reports from The Athletic and Awful Announcing.

In a game that aired Sunday on ESPN, IMG Academy from Bradenton, Florida, travels to Canton, Ohio, to take on Bishop Sycamore High School from Columbus. The game was billed as a matchup between two premium prep schools featuring plenty of young players that will soon play at major college programs.

That turned out to be true of only one of those teams. IMG Academy routed Bishop Sycamore with a 58-0 victory.

IMG Academy boasts one of the best football teams in the country, with 19 of ESPN's top-ranked 300 players nationwide in the class of 2022 and the class of 2023. And while Bishop Sycamore told the network they had several top recruits of their own, ESPN announcers admitted during the game broadcast that they "could not verify" many of the school's claims about their players' NCAA Division I offers.

ESPN announcers also seemed concerned for the safety of the players on the field. But what they didn't know is that Bishop Sycamore had also played in a game just two days earlier, losing to Sto-Rox High School in the Pittsburgh area on Friday.

Awful Announcing reports that Bishop Sycamore started the same quarterback on both Friday and Sunday and that in both games, the team "frequently had players with the same numbers in the same alignments." Bishop Sycamore also fielded only about 35 players, meaning that many of those players played on both offense and defense with few breaks.

A reporter who was at the game told Awful Announcing that several players suffered injuries during Sunday's game.

It's also unclear what kind of education Bishop Sycamore provides. The Ohio High School Athletic Association does not recognize the school. The Athletic reports that the address listed with the Ohio Department of Education is an indoor athletic complex and that the address listed on the school's MaxPreps page is the library for Franklin University. The school's website also currently appears inoperable.

The Athletic also spoke to the parent of a player who was recruited to play for Bishop Sycamore earlier this year. That player, Judah Holtzclaw, nearly joined the team as part of a "gap year" after his senior season in the hopes of attracting a better scholarship offer.

Holtzclaw's father claimed he was forced to foot the bill for equipment and hotel rooms for his son and teammates, for which he was never supposed to pay. He also told The Athletic that he had tried to contact the team's future opponents to warn them that they may be playing a team "that has players who are 19 or 20 and may not even go to class at all."

The Athletic also reports that the team's coach, Roy Johnson, tried to form a similar team for a school called Christians of Faith Academy (COF), a school that never materialized and later sparked a lawsuit against Johnson from a bank seeking repayment of a $100,000 loan.

In fact, Johnson had even set up a game between COF and IMG Academy in 2018. According to The Athletic, that game was canceled after COF asked for money up front to travel to Florida, which spooked IMG administrators.

Sunday's game marked the second time that IMG had played Bishop Sycamore. The teams squared off in 2020, with IMG winning 56-6. That game was part of the 0-6 record Bishop Sycamore tallied in 2020, in which they lost every game by at least 23 points.

In a statement, ESPN placed the blame on Paragon Marketing, which handles the scheduling and booking for the network's high school football games.

"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."

Rashid Ghazi, the president of Paragon Marketing Group, told The Athletic he had no idea that Bishop Sycamore had played a game on Friday. He also took the blame for not vetting the school's roster.

"The vetting process and the issues with the matchup are 100 percent on Paragon," Ghazi told The Athletic. "As the guy who founded the ESPN relationship, and the president of the company, it's really 100 percent on me."