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Could other Ohio football programs be misrepresenting themselves like Bishop Sycamore is accused of doing?

High School Football
High School Football(Josh Auzenne | WAFB)
Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 2:07 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - 19 Investigates is uncovering how coaches may be illegally using their players for profit, as a team with local teens on the roster is facing allegations of fraud and playing back to back games for money.

Here’s what we’re working on for Monday at 6&11

Posted by Hannah Catlett on Friday, September 10, 2021

After the now infamous mess of a supposed high school game aired on ESPN we wanted to know-- are there other programs out there pretending to be something they are not? And, how can you make sure no one is taking advantage of your kids for profit?

The announcers at the game between Florida’s IMG Academy and Columbus based Bishop Sycamore High School tried to make sense of the lop-sided score on Aug. 29.

One commentator said, “Again, we didn’t get a lot of information out of Bishop Sycamore, but the information we did have is that they are trying to change lives for a lot of young people who come from disadvantaged areas.”

While that could be true of the start-up program on some level, Ben Ferree just doesn’t believe it.

“Why did people ignore these red flags for so long?” he said.

Ferree said he was an investigator with the Ohio High School Athletic Association when the organization discovered Bishop Sycamore was not what it claims to be early on in 2019.

“Nothing was missed. The investigation was quick,” he said. “We informed our members that this is not a school. This is a collection of post graduate players some of whom are over age.”

Bishop Sycamore is registered with the Ohio Department of Education as a non-charter, non-tax funded school.

That means it doesn’t get money from the government to operate, but calls itself a school.

“While there are rules that you have to follow, there is no check up on that,” Ferree said. “They don’t come and ensure that you are following those rules unless a complaint is made.”

19 Investigates went through the list of non-charter, non-tax funded schools and found that out of 31 schools in that category in Cuyahoga county, 25 of them list addresses of a home or unidentified building like Bishop Sycamore did.

We asked Ferree if others could be doing what Bishop Sycamore did.

“It’s possible,” he said. “What makes Bishop Sycamore unique is that they tried to pretend to be a school while operating as a sports team.”

So, does it matter that the team misrepresented themselves?

Ferree explained that teams in Ohio are allowed to play whoever they want.

“They could play the Cleveland Browns if they wanted to,” Ferree said.

Bishop Sycamore is not a member of the OHSAA and does not have to follow the rules and eligibility regulations of an OHSAA team.

“Who is going to punish them? It can’t be the OHSAA. They are not OHSAA members. It can’t be the Ohio Department of Education. They are not a school,” Ferree said.

Ferree says the true issue lies not with the school’s misrepresentation, but instead with the intentions of those running the program.

Earlier this month, a Bishop Sycamore player from Euclid and his mother sat down for an exclusive interview with our Jen Picciano.

Alaija Morris says she paid $2,500 for her son Jaylen’s room and board in Columbus.

She says a scholarship or grant was supposed to cover the rest of the thousands of dollars necessary for Jaylen to attend online classes and travel with the football team.

“The remaining question is where is the money?” Ferree said.

That’s what parents and 19 investigates wanted to know.

Ferree says the team was taking in money from its opponents that decided to play them despite the association’s warning.

“It is not uncommon at all for your real big programs to pay a travel stipend for the team to come and play,” he said. “As far as that team knows, everything is on the up and up.”

However, after the game against IMG aired on ESPN, the legitimacy of the team was called into question and potentially holding even more serious consequences, brought major money issues to light.

“Every where they go a trail of lawsuits follows of people saying we have not been paid,” Ferree said.

19 Investigates discovered Bishop Sycamore’s now former head coach Roy Johnson became the center of several lawsuits while running another team called Christians of Fairth that was shut down three years ago.

Bishop Sycamore was created right after that.

“It’s always taking money in, it’s never money going out,” Ferree said.

The lawsuits and now a Canton Police report allege Johnson has not been paying for equipment, transportation and travel accommodations.

“I don’t want to see the shine come off this story until there are criminal charges brought against the people who have been running this scam for the last three years,” Ferree said. “The victims in this case are many.”

Of course there are the business owners who are not getting paid, the team’s opponents and-- possibly the most heartbreaking-- the athletes on Bishop Sycamore’s roster.

It’s too late for many of them to go somewhere else.

So how can you make sure your kid doesn’t end up in a misleading program or the opponent of one?

Feree says, “This is 2021. The easiest thing to do if you are sending your kid to an online school is to check if they have a website. I truly believe that the amount of oversight to determine realize that’s going on is minimal.”

To prevent these types of programs from getting this far in the future, Ferree says the OHSAA could in theory pass a rule that teams can only play other OHSAA members. Most long-standing high school programs are part of the organization.

However, that prevents teams from the option of playing out of state teams if they wish.

Feree thinks it would be better if teams just had more awareness and accountability for the teams they pick to play.

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