It just keeps getting worse
The most fascinating story in sports right now is the saga of Bishop Sycamore.
In case you’ve missed the drama of the past few days: Sycamore faced athlete factory IMG Academy in a game Sunday as part of ESPN’s weeklong high school football showcase. Sycamore was touted as a program loaded with Division I talent, but during the 58–0 blowout, it quickly became clear that its players couldn’t hang with IMG. ESPN’s Tom Luginbill, who called the game, said on Twitter afterward that it was a “total scam.”
That’s the short version. The long version is that Sycamore, despite claiming to be based in Columbus, is not affiliated with the Ohio High School Athletic Association. The address it provides to recruits is the address for the library of Franklin University, where, the university told The Columbus Dispatch, it had previously rented a room. It is a “non-chartered, tax-supported” school, according to the Dispatch, but it’s unclear whether it has filed the proper paperwork to maintain that status. (Classes are conducted online.) The Sycamore roster includes postgraduate players who are as old as 19 or 20, some of whom are alleged to have already played in juco games. Head coach Roy Johnson was part of a federal fraud investigation after the African Methodist Episcopal Church denied being involved with his previous football-focused school. Johnson also has an active bench warrant for failing to appear in a domestic violence case.
Every detail that trickles out paints an increasingly damning picture of the school. The most shocking accounts come from a former player and a parent of another player, who both gave damning interviews about Sycamore after Sunday’s debacle.
Ray Holtzclaw is the father of Judah Holtzclaw, a former Sycamore player who is now on the football team at Youngstown State. Judah had planned on playing with Sycamore in the 2021 spring season, but, as his father told Awful Announcing in a lengthy interview, chaotic mismanagement prevented that from happening.
“They assured me everything would be taken care of, and then we were supposed to start playing football for them in the spring,” Ray said. “They had a schedule they put out. About two, maybe three weeks before the game was scheduled to play, I said ‘Where is the rest of the team and where are the uniforms? Where’s all the stuff?’ ”
Although Sycamore played six games (and lost all six), Ray held Judah off the field because the team was hardly able to practice. The father and son then turned their attention to summer 7-on-7 college recruiting events, which were also a disaster. Ray told AA that he was told by the school that it would be covering the cost of hotel rooms for a camp in Georgia. When Ray and Judah traveled to the next camp ahead of the rest of the team, he was hit with a surprise bill for $2,500. The hotel told him none of the team’s 15 rooms had been paid for.
The elder Holtzclaw also relayed a story of traveling to a camp at Houston with another unnamed Sycamore player only to be told by a Cougars coach that the other player would not be allowed to attend because he had faked his highlights.
The most troubling account of life at Bishop Sycamore comes from a former player named Aaron Boyd, who played for Johnson when the school was known as Christians of Faith Academy. (Johnson’s failed quest to build COF Academy was the subject of a six-part series by Andrew King, a reporter for Columbus-area paper ThisWeek, in 2019.) Boyd told Complex about his experience living in a hotel, not attending classes and having to steal food in order to eat.
“They sent me books with, like, s--- on how the school was supposed to look,” Boyd said. “Blueprints and everything. They told us we was gonna be on Netflix; they recruited us telling us we were gonna be on a show. They told us we’re gonna be the IMG of the midwest. They lied to me and my mama.”
Boyd said he and his teammates were living in a hotel in Delaware, Ohio, for five months, and claims the school, despite promising to cover the costs, never paid the bill. (Holtzclaw also mentioned issues with housing, saying the mother of another player contacted him after her son “had lost a lot of items at the apartment they got kicked out of.”)
“For the last month and a half, we had about 35 players,” Boyd said. “We moved into these new houses. For that month and a half, we was all sleeping on the floor. We had to go rob Meijers, Krogers, Walmart because that’s the only way we can eat.”
School, Boyd said, was an afterthought. He ended up having to repeat his junior year.
“We didn’t go to school. We never went to school,” he told Complex. “I can’t lie; they tried once. They took us to a community library. One day. It was already October, the season was about to be over. It was like at this point, ‘Well, s---, I’m not going to school. Y’all haven’t put me through school this whole time.’ ”
When Sycamore’s deception was first revealed, it reminded me of a 2012 Sports Illustrated story about a football-first online school in Maryland. But the Sycamore story seems shadier and shadier as each layer of the onion is peeled back. I can’t recommend enough that you read Holtzclaw’s full interview with AA and Boyd’s full conversation with Complex. There are too many outrageous details to cover here.
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