(NEW YORK) — Two years ago, a blowout high school football loss that aired on ESPN raised widespread skepticism about the legitimacy of Ohio-based Bishop Sycamore High School.
National powerhouse IMG Academy won 58-0, and ESPN broadcasters quickly noted the mismatch and commented on it during the game, citing player safety, ESPN reported at the time. As the game unfolded, commentators also said they became suspicious when information about the team and its players was hard to come by.
Now, a new HBO documentary, BS High tells the story of what was going on behind the scenes leading up to the televised game and the subsequent fraud it exposed. Director Travon Free spoke to ABC News’ Jay O’Brien about the film and why interviewing the players was the “one of the hardest things” he’s ever had to do.
O’BRIEN: You talk to a lot of people for this documentary. You talk to players and students and parents and community members. You even talk to the coach. He was a central part in all of this. How did you get him to talk to you?
FREE: Honestly, it’s hard to get Roy [Johnson] not to talk, if you really think about it. He actually came to us after me and Martin – my co-director, Martin Desmond Rowe – saw the game like everybody else. And Martin happened to be friends with a guy who works for [Michael] Strahan’s production company, Ethan Lewis.
And Ethan called up Martin and was like, “Hey, we have the coach and he wants to talk. Are you guys interested in directing this movie, potentially?” And so we got on the phone with Roy and, after like 5 minutes, we were like, “Absolutely, we have to do this.”
O’BRIEN: He’s a talker?
FREE: Very much.
O’BRIEN: So, we learn a lot about the students, too, in this film – their stories and their dreams. In a lot of those cases, these were upended by the events of this team. What was it like hearing what they went through?
FREE: You know, that was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, just probably in life, too, to sit across from these kids and hear them tell the stories of this really heartbreaking and painful experience they went through. Because as directors, we also had to get them to a place where they were willing to talk about it in a vulnerable way, because they weren’t initially.
They were very hardened and, you know, hurt by it, and they didn’t want to talk about it. They wanted to keep that pushed down and keep it away and try to move forward. And we were asking them to go back to a time in their lives, where something that was so important to them was taken away.
O’BRIEN: And does it have ripple effects to a lot of these guys now?
FREE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, a lot of them found themselves in the position where, had they gone to a real school or played for a real coach in that time frame that they had to actually play football? They might have actually landed somewhere. They might not have necessarily landed at an Alabama or an LSU or something like that, but they would have actually had a shot.
Playing for Roy meant they had no shot. There was just no way that was going to work out for them, because there was no school, so there was no eligibility. So you were basically playing for nothing.
O’BRIEN: You talk about the school. A lot of people figured out pretty quickly that this school was a fraud, pretty quickly into that game against IMG. But also in the film, there are forged checks, assaults and killing geese. I’m looking at it here, everything that’s in it. I mean, was there anything that stood out to you and surprised you?
FREE: You know, the geese story was definitely surprising. I did not see that coming until Pahokee started telling that story. And we thought that there’s no way Roy [Johnson] is going to admit to doing this. And as you see in the movie, he does immediately.
But I mean, it was also kind of surprising to see just how far the tentacles of his manipulation spread. Because it wasn’t just manipulating the kids, because a lot of people think and I’ve seen people say like, ‘Oh, well, like the parents are dumb and to blame. How could they let their kids? How could they fall for this?”
And when you watch the film, you get to see and hear how [Johnson] lied to them, too. And as a parent, you’re trying to protect your child’s dreams, right? But you’re also trying to protect your child from danger, from predators. And so when a predator shows up who’s specifically preying on your child’s dream, it’s even more difficult to protect them from that, because you as a parent don’t want to say, “Hey, I know football is your dream and this is your last chance to potentially make something of it, but I don’t want to let you go play for this guy.”
O’BRIEN: Well, this story, it gripped the country when it came out and that game happened. And we know that officials in Ohio called for some legislative fixes to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. The state legislature didn’t do anything. Can this happen again, and what should be in place to make sure it doesn’t?
FREE: This can absolutely happen again. And the reason that the state of Ohio used in not doing anything about it was because Bishop Sycamore used a religious exemption for their school, and they have no governance over the churches, right? And so what we should be doing is looking at just how far that exemption goes when it comes to damaging the lives of not just kids, but anybody.