BS HIGH Key Art | ©2023 HBO

BS HIGH Key Art | ©2023 HBO

BS HIGH theoretically stands for Bishop Sycamore High, the institution at the heart of the documentary by filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe. However, the title of the doc, which is now available on HBO and Max, could hardly be more appropriate in the more colloquial sense of “BS.”

On August 29, 2021, ESPN televised a high school football game between Bishop Sycamore and the top-ranked-for-football IMG Academy. Bishop Sycamore did so badly, and had so many player injuries, that it wasn’t just a case of a blowout score in favor of IMG; questions arose as to how such a clearly outmatched team made it onto ESPN.

The truth just got stranger. Bishop Sycamore wasn’t a real high school, but rather the invention of Leroy “Roy” Johnson, who had sold it as an outgrowth of a religious academy called Christians of Faith – which also didn’t exist. Instead, it was an elaborate scam that ensnared a lot of Black youths from poor neighborhoods in and around Columbus, Ohio.

There have been numerous articles written about the scandal, and a nonfiction book, FRIDAY NIGHT LIES by Andrew King and Ben Ferree, comes out in September.

The film BS HIGH began life shortly after the scandal broke. Former NFL player Michael Strahan’s production company SMAC Entertainment announced in September 2021 that he had secured the rights to interview Johnson. Other companies involved include Adam McKay’s Hyperobject Industries, Spencer Paysinger’s Moore Street Productions, Boat Rocker Media, The Athletic, and HBO Sports.

SMAC then enlisted Free and Roe, who had jointly won the Best Live Action Short Film for their 2020 TWO DISTANT STRANGERS. They interviewed Johnson in February 2022 in Los Angeles, and went around the country to speak with other people involved in the events covered in BS HIGH.

As a writer, Free has also been on comedy, drama, and variety series including HARLEM, BLACK MONDAY, FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE, and THE DAILY SHOW.

Roe has a varied career as a director, writer, and producer. He co-scripted the Oscar-nominated short BUZKASHI BOYS, was an executive producer on the Emmy-winning TOM VS TIME, and directed the Cannes Golden Lion winner BREAKING2. Roe’s other credits include the true-crime documentary series HEIST and the sports documentary series WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS.

Free and Roe get together on Zoom to talk BS HIGH with Assignment X.

ASSIGNMENT X: How did the two of you come together to do this documentary?

MARTIN DESMOND ROE: Well, Travon and I have been a writing and directing team for the last few years. We made a short film that won an Academy Award, and after that, we were like, “Maybe we should keep this team together for a while, and see what else happens.” And it’s been going pretty well. So, we do everything together.

AX: Did you know about the Bishop Sycamore High scandal as it was happening in real time, or did you come across it once it had been revealed?

ROE: We very much knew about it in real time. We follow the stories of the week as they break, and we were sharing the videos and memes about the story as it happened. Actually, Travon wrote a Tweet. He said, “There’s going to be a documentary, and it’s going to be called BS HIGH,” which turned out to be quite prescient. And then, about a month or so later, a friend of ours, who’s a producer, reached out to us and said, “I think I’ve got the guy [Johnson]. I think he wants to talk. Do you want to talk to him and see if you guys want to direct it?” We were like, “Absolutely.” And then we met Roy Johnson, and the ship started sailing.

AX: Were you surprised with the turns the Roy Johnson interview took? Or by now, given how much scams have been in the news lately, were you thinking, “Okay, we know the rough outline of this”?

TRAVON FREE: The experience of Roy was what we expected and more. It was challenging, to say the least [laughs], because you’re talking to someone who is also actively manipulating you in real time, and trying to get to the truth of a story. So, we expected a much lighter, simpler story that turned into something a lot heavier and I guess darker, for lack of a better word, than we anticipated.

AX: When you began, were you thinking of the awful effect this whole thing had on the young men involved, or was that something that you started realizing as you were working on it?

FREE: I think we approached it with the idea of, “Let’s try to find out what actually happened,” and let the information guide us where we would go next, and what the story would actually become, because we didn’t want to approach it with a take or a perspective that we were trying to find, or shape, or tell our own version of the thing.

The best version of this particular type of story, and I think it also lends itself to medium of documentary filmmaking storytelling, is you get to sit back and watch the thing become what it’s becoming, and you can shape it, almost like you’re molding a clay pot, as it goes along, but it’s becoming what it’s becoming, telling you what it is, and in this particular case, it started to tell us that Roy was not the wholesome good guy who just tried too hard and overreached. When we started to realize that, it changed our perspective on the story and how we wanted to present it in the film.

AX: When you were talking to him, did you already have an idea of who else you wanted to talk to, or did you complete the interview, then do some more research, and then decide on other people?

ROE: Very much both. We did our research ahead of the time. There was a lot of good reporting done ahead of time, before this even broke out. Andrew King, [who co-wrote the book about Bishop Sycamore, and is] in the film, had written a lot of wonderful articles about the story for a lot of the local papers in and around Columbus. And so did The Athletic, who were our partners in producing this. There was a lot of really good writing about this, so we had a sense of what it might be.

But on the other hand, obviously, we also learned as we went. And the scope of it expanded. Once we found out that there were four years of the school, it became very important to us to make sure that we spoke to kids from all four years. We were like, “How did this dream grow and change? Was it always the same? Was there ever a good part, or was it always this kind of pretty dark, exploitative thing?” And similarly, we found the guy who organized the event, the guy who put his name, saying, “Yes, this team is one that should play the best team in the country on national television.” That was the sort of discovery process, and fascinating.

And on the top level, we also brought in [former ESPN journalist] Bomani Jones to help an audience to navigate some of the more complicated aspects of high school football, and the way money has changed a lot of high school football, the way that high school football players can’t make any money, but a lot of money is made literally off of their bodies, and how the bodies of young Black men are making a lot of people a lot of money, and none of that is going to them. We wanted to make sure that somebody had a side of the story that could help us see some of the bigger picture. So, there was both a research angle and an exploration angle to it, in terms of who we spoke to.

AX: Asking as someone who knows very little about football, for people who do know about football, can you tell from the footage of the game that was on ESPN that something out of the ordinary is going wrong?

FREE: Oh, absolutely. If you know football, it’s probably a lot more painful to watch, simply because you come into it knowing the challenges and the dangers of football in general, and then you also immediately recognize a team so far out of their depth that it’s just unbelievable that they’re actually on the field.

AX: Does Roy Johnson actually know anything about football, or did he just know that he wanted to make money off of it?

FREE: That’s a good question. Roy’s own players didn’t think he was very knowledgeable about football.

ROE: Yeah.

FREE: But I think he has a basic enough understanding. He’ll tell you, “I wasn’t the offensive coordinator,” he didn’t run any of the positions where you would need an intricate knowledge of the game. But as the quote-unquote head coach, especially for someone like Roy, with his personality, it’s a lot easier to delegate those things to other people who might claim to be knowledgeable about those things. So, there is a high likelihood that Roy does not know a ton about football [laughs], but he might know enough – he knows enough to do what he did.

AX: Why do you think he did what he did?

ROE: The thing about Roy is that he is a lifetime con man. He’s one of those people who puts so much effort into trying to skirt the rules that it ends up being much more effort than it would be to play inside the rules at the intelligence level that he operates at. He’s smart enough to do these brilliantly complicated plans, but dumb enough to not realize life could be so much easier if you just don’t [laughs].

And so, why Roy exactly did this scam is one of those central questions of the film. And the truth is that, whilst the instigating feeling, the instigating part of it, was definitely a quest for money, and a belief in the early days that it would be money, it was much more, ultimately, about social status. It was much more ultimately about being seen as The Man, and having this power. For a while, he was the man who could get big games against big teams, and that gives him a lot of cachet. And the truth is, if he was doing it more legitimately, he’s occupying a niche that people want filled, right? But he wasn’t.

After eighteen months of investigating this, we’re still confused as to how he ever thought he was going to make money. But there are parts to it that, honestly, the motivating impetus – Roy says it himself in the film – is that he wanted to be seen, he wanted to be known, he wanted to be heard. That’s really what mattered to him.

AX: He started out by claiming his pretend high school was faith-based. Do you think that faith-based people, if they have reason to believe that other people share their faith, are more inclined to give those people the benefit of the doubt? That people believed he was coming from the same place that they were?

ROE: I am from a very religious background myself, and I think part of faith is looking for the good in life, and looking for the good in people. I would say that Roy trades off that very instinctively. Roy presents himself as a pastor at times to people, with – as far as we can find out – no qualification for that, other than the fact that he told people that. And he is from this very religious area, very religious community, and set it up as a faith-based school. He positioned himself as a pastor when it suited him.

He operated in a world that is looking for the good in people. And he positioned himself as a religious man who is taking children in and helping them spiritually, not just physically. And that was one of the greatest lies of the entire thing. There was no school. There was no interest in their moral development at all. There was only interest in getting them on a football field. That was all that mattered.

Everyone thinks, “Oh, I could never get conned,” right? And one of the key things that always track when people have been conned, one of them is that you are profoundly from the same community. He was an African-American from a religious community, who operated within that same sphere, presented himself as one of those people. So, there’s absolutely no doubt that he took advantage of people looking for the good in him.

AX: In the world of football, at least, there is a lot of documentation and knowledge to prevent Roy Johnson from doing something like this again, but is there anything to stop him from doing something like this again in some other sphere?

FREE: No, not really. There are no laws he broke. As far as the state of Ohio is concerned, he didn’t do anything illegal, he just did something that they think is morally bad. And that’s the problem, which is, they are not making any effort to make the type of things he did illegal, because that state, like many others, runs on football. If they were to look at the things Roy did and find ways to criminalize certain behaviors, it would affect a lot more people, with a lot more influence and money, than Roy Johnson. And I think that’s part of the reason why you see a big wag of the finger at Roy, and what he did, but not much more.

AX: Do you think the documentary BS HIGH, because television does have some impact, may have any effect on those laws, or at least how people view those laws?

ROE: No [laughs]. Not in the short term. I don’t think that progress works like that. I don’t think that you make one thing, and everyone goes, “Oh, okay, yeah, you’re right.” As Travon said, the movie points it out in pretty black and white terms. [Ohio] Governor [Mike] DeWine of Ohio was going to talk to us at one point, and then pulled that, because their seventy-two-, seventy-eight-page investigation discovered there was literally nothing they could do. So, he refused to talk to us.

Now, do I think that being shamed, which hopefully will partly happen in this film, [will have an effect on] the people who were supposed to protect our children, and not only haven’t, but don’t seem to even want to? Is shame a powerful tool? We hope so. And we hope that we’re one part of pulling a brick from this wall down, and other people can help as well.

Because, as Travon says, there are too many people invested in it financially. There are too many big companies making a lot of money off of these kids playing football. IMG sold for over a billion dollars. ESPN, I don’t know what they’re getting for advertising these things, but it’s not nothing. People are making money off of this.

And it’s hidden under the idea that the kids want it. Which they do. But they’re also kids. They’re not getting any money. Most of them aren’t getting actual meaningful opportunities, they’re just getting smashed, hard, and in this case, they’re getting smashed hard by a team that they should not be playing, morally and technically. Because it was a carnival of injuries, as you see from the film. Kids just kept getting hurt over and over again, because they had no trainers. They had nobody looking after the physical welfare of these children. And how is that allowed to be televised? How are people allowed to make money advertising off that?

So, we hope that there is some shame generated from this, and that that generates some momentum towards actually looking into this. We also know there are going to be follow-ups. The Athletic have written pieces about it, there’s a companion podcast to this that gets into this stuff much more deeply. And so, we’re not alone here in looking at this.

And there will be more examples of this. There was a Canadian team that played last year that got demolished a hundred-nil or something like that. Once you see that it’s not a one-off, once you see that this is systemic and systematic, then our hopes that something will change will go up significantly, and we hope that we are one of the early trickles in building a river of resistance to this kind of behavior [of exploiting youth for profit].

AX: Is there anything else either of you would like to say about BS HIGH?

ROE: One way we frame this thing internally is that this is a portrait of a con man. The first thing Roy said when he sat down to us is, “Do I look like a con man, or do I look like a regular, normal person?” And we think that one of the things that makes this film unique is, he’s completely unguarded. This is a con man telling you each one of his tricks, how his thought process has worked, the whole kit and kaboodle.

FREE: Martin said it pretty well. I would add, I think it’s hard to protect kids’ dreams, and it’s hard to protect kids from predator. I think it’s even more difficult when the predator is preying on that kid’s specific dream, and that’s what Roy did to these kids. They had dreams of playing football at a high level, at a Division One level. And Roy knew that, and he also knew that their likelihood and chances for achieving that were not very high in general, and that made them prime targets for his plan. And it effectively ruined not only their playing experience, but a lot of their lives, in some instances.

I think it’s important for us to recognize that we have to protect kids at all costs. And in situations like Bishop Sycamore, when it’s a group of Black kids, people tend to care a little bit less. I hope that, when people see this story, they recognize the importance of why we need to be focusing on what we’re doing to keep this from happening in every aspect of life when it comes to young people.

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Article: Exclusive Interview:  Filmmakers Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe on new HBO documentary BS HIGH


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