I am perversely, ineluctably drawn to documentaries like BS High, where people who have done something really bad confidently sit down in front of the film crew and lay out their justifications for what they did. Some of them are stupid. Some of them are delusional. Some of them are just evil.
Some combination of those is Roy Johnson, who went by “Leroy” when he was coaching Bishop Sycamore High School, whose football team got pasted on ESPN in August 2021. This happens to football teams, of course, but when the Centurions played highly ranked IMG Academy for the finale of the ESPN High School Kickoff series, Bishop Sycamore was so overmatched that the network’s announcers Anish Shroff and Tom Luginbill caught on that their network had been scammed. They spent the entire second half of the 58-0 loss expressing concern for the many Bishop Sycamore players who got hurt and running down the shady things about the Ohio-based institution. So did fans watching at home, who found out information about the fake school that the newsgatherers at ESPN apparently couldn’t be bothered to and dragged Bishop Sycamore on social media, noting that its name has the same initials as “bullshit.”
If you missed the game, you still likely caught the appalling revelations that came out in its wake: The school did not actually exist, Johnson had stiffed a string of hotels and apartment complexes where his players were lodging, he had a domestic violence warrant out on him while he was appearing on national TV, his players were overage, the team had played another football game only 48 hours before, and the athletes were so badly provided for that they were sharing helmets. Some of them had to shoplift from Wal-Mart just to eat.
The film opens with Roy Johnson sitting down at a studio with documentarians Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe. He seriously asks, “Do I look like a con artist?” as he looks over the set. It’s not the austere black background behind him that does that. He smiles a lot, displays great energy, and like the greatest liars, he freely admits that he is a liar. It would be wrong to call him “articulate,” not because that’s a loaded term when describing a Black person, but because it’s inaccurate. He can string words together, sure, but his thoughts fall apart when you subject them to any kind of analysis. Among his other admissions, he says he sought out players who were in need of father figures and were receiving little useful advice from the grown-ups around them. You can easily see how the boys and young men he recruited, whose high-school football careers were over, might believe his promises that Bishop Sycamore would give them a chance to play and get their grades up so the likes of Ohio State and Georgia would come calling.
Free and Roe won Oscars for their short film Two Distant Strangers, and they do not throw softballs at their subject, unlike the makers of Netflix’s Urban Meyer documentary. They discover some new information that did not immediately come out after that 2021 game, including that Johnson had his players sign their names to apartment leases, so when the team was evicted from their lodgings, that went on the signees’ financial records and not Johnson’s. He also defrauded the federal Paycheck Protection Program set up for the Covid pandemic by claiming that these players were small business owners. Perhaps some of these players overestimated their own skill level in football, but from the interviews with them, it’s clear that they’re less concerned about losing money or a year of their football careers than by the personal betrayal that Johnson inflicted on them. He figured that getting his team on ESPN would attract more talent and make him into a big man, when all it did was hold his athletes up to ridicule. (One of them says, “If I had been watching that game at home, I would have been clowning me.”) Sportswriter Bomani Jones notes the outrage that many Black fans felt about Johnson doing this to Black people like himself and responds: “Black kids are who you can do this to. None of this happens if there isn’t so much money washing through high-school football.”
Others have pointed out that if Johnson hadn’t had the hubris to put his team on ESPN, he might still be in business. Bishop Sycamore’s opponents at IMG are supposedly legitimate, but what they do isn’t all that different. They’re a football mill that places education a distant second priority. Maybe that’s an honest reflection of a society that values young Black men as athletes more than as anything else. I don’t have to like it, though. At any rate, the system allows a twisted and loathsome specimen of humanity like Johnson to flourish because of everything that people have invested in high-school football.
The filmmakers show Johnson video footage of his players’ interviews in the aftermath of all this, some of them in tears as they survey the damage that their coach inflicted on their lives. Is he shocked? No, he’s furious. He storms out of the interview saying, “This is some bullshit! These motherfuckers!” The cameras and audio follow him out of the studio as he calls his players a bunch of lying, ungrateful bastards who don’t bow down in gratitude for everything he did for them, which includes teaching them to commit crimes, messing up their credit ratings, and preying on the trust they placed in him. When he comes back, he boasts that this documentary is yet another step on his way back.
Some of his ex-players call Roy Johnson evil. I initially thought that might be a bit much, but then I saw the part of the movie where Johnson gleefully tells the story about how he used his belt to beat a homeless man who was trying to break into his car (in front of his players, too). When I saw him laugh and imitate the homeless man’s cries of pain, I thought, “Okay, evil.” How many other Roy Johnsons are out there in high-school football, using promises of the big time to squeeze money out of impressionable kids? Something to think about as a new season gets underway.