Millions of high school football fans tuned into EPSN on August 29, 2021, for a highly anticipated matchup between IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore, a Columbus-based team. Instead of cheering, many fans found themselves grimacing as they watched Bishop Sycamore’s chances for a win quickly deteriorate with a 56-0 final score.
The game led to scandal as questions about the authenticity of Bishop Sycamore began to circulate, questions that Ben Ferree ’12 and Andrew King ’13 had begun to answer three years prior.
While at the Ohio High School Athletic Association, Ferree was introduced to what was then called Christians of Faith Academy. In 2020, the school rebranded to Bishop Sycamore. IMG Academy is a Florida prep school with a reputation for preparing high school football players for successful college and NFL careers.
“Essentially, I was tasked with trying to find out as much as I could about the program. I quickly came to the realization that COF Academy was not actually a real school. There were no classrooms or teachers, no education was going on whatsoever,” said Ferree. “I immediately thought that this was a pretty big news story, something beyond just an OHSAA work story. I reached out to reporters in Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati – all the big areas – and no one really wanted to run with it.”
After his efforts were dismissed, Ferree reached out to his friend and former Chimes colleague to pitch the story. Luckily, King and his editors at ThisWeek agreed it was a story worth telling.
“From the very first day I started working on it, it was very obvious that it was a really weird story. It was all surprising. There was never a time when I was looking for something or asking about something that I found a clear answer,” said King.
“Every single thing was either a lie or some sort of fabrication or exaggeration. Every one of the characters involved in the story had a strange backstory. As a reporter, you should get to a point where you feel like you’re looking at the full picture, and even now, I have not reached that point. There are questions that I still don’t really have answers to years later.”
Despite the work done by Ferree and King, Bishop Sycamore was still allowed to compete and eventually stumbled onto the national stage.
“It was a classic Icarus flying too close to the sun when they got on ESPN. It brought too much publicity to the program, which they were seeking. People realized the program was fake and it was a complete meltdown. The story went viral and made the news in Australia, Canada, and even Europe,” said Ferree. “Once it went viral, people began looking for more information and they found Andrew’s old reporting and my information.”
The fraudulent academy continued to capture people’s attention and is the subject of a new HBO documentary premiering at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. Directed by Martin Desmond Roe and Travon Free, “BS High” interviews players, families, and even the head coach.
“It’s kind of a true-crime style documentary, which is very popular right now. I filmed probably about 20 hours’ worth of footage, which is an insane amount of time when you consider that it’s a 90-minute documentary,” said Ferree.
“Friday Night Lies,” co-authored by Ferree and King, will be published by Triumph Books and available in September.
“I don’t really think this book is much of a sports book. It’s more about an interesting controversy and all the weird minutia that went on behind the scenes and the exploitation of kids in America. In the book, we get into a lot about the factors at play that lead to some of these things, like why these kids were put into a position to take such a gamble in the first place, or why things like nebulous promises about scholarships can happen,” said King.
“I think we live in this world where until something goes viral on social media or in the news on a national scale, nobody really pays attention to it. I wish there was a world where people would take away from this story that they should pay more attention to things that are going on in their own communities.”
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