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HBO documentary centered on fake Columbus school's football team premieres at film festival

 Bishop Sycamore Quarterback Trilian Harris stands on the Tom Benson Hall of Fam Stadium field in 2021 in a game against IMG Academy.
Courtesy of HBO
The HBO Documentary "BS High" follows the story of Bishop Sycamore High School following the football team's 58-0 blowout loss against IMG Academy in 2021 and the investigations into the fake school.

A fake Columbus high school and its football team are at the center of a new HBO documentary that premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.

"BS High," directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, tells the story of Bishop Sycamore High School and the Centurions football team that became embroiled in controversy following a blowout 58-0 loss against premiere Florida school IMG Academy in 2021. The game was broadcast on ESPN which led viewers, reporters and the makers of the film to question and uncover the reality of the school.

Free said viewers have come away from the 97-minute film feeling floored from the roller coaster of emotions it leads viewers on.

Free also said the film features over 30 hours of interviews with disgraced former head coach Roy Johnson, but he wants viewers to feel sympathy toward the kids and parents who were impacted by the fake school.

"We weren't just dealing with a ragtag, like, scruffy football team that was like trying to bad news bears their way into, you know, beating IMG. It was a lot deeper," he said.

The team reportedly exaggerated its football program status with ESPN to get onto the network, and played two games within two days, raising safety concerns.

Johnson was fired and the school was ruled as a scam after facing lawsuits and an investigation by the Ohio Department of Education.

Free said Johnson promised the players athletic and academic success, only for it all to be a con.

"(Johnson) has this charm about him. That is a powerful tool that he used to make all this happen to begin with," Free said.

But Free said that charm quickly faded away for he and the production team as he and the team interviewed the players, parents and others who were impacted by Johnson's actions.

The film's 30 second promotional video catches Johnson on film preparing for the interview asking if he looks like a con man. Free said the film explores how the coach took advantage of the players who had big dreams and aspirations, and used them for his own benefit.

"Every pre-interview we did with kids or parents, it was just horror story after horror story of things we couldn't even put in the movie," Free said.

Free said Johnson was open during the time he was interviewed and candid, even when he probably shouldn't have been. Free also said he was surprised Johnson didn't walk out of the interview at times.

"If you tell (Johnson) there's a camera and a microphone, he will show up because he has a story to tell and he wants to tell it. I'm like, 'there's no way this guy wants to or should be in front of a camera,' and at every stage he is," Free said.

While the film focuses on Bishop Sycamore, Free said they want the film to reflect what they view as a problem with money and high school sports. He said it should help audiences reckon with the impact this has on the athletes and kids who help generate this money.

The film will premiere later this summer on HBO and the MAX streaming service. The film is also available to rent from June 19 to July 2 and stream through the Tribeca at Home service on the festival's website.

George Shillcock is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. He joined the WOSU newsroom in April 2023 following three years as a reporter in Iowa with the USA Today Network.