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Bishop Sycamore Football Team Denies They Misrepresented Themselves To Play On ESPN

The football team for Columbus online school Bishop Sycamore (players in black uniforms) line up for an offensive play against powerhouse IMG Academy out of Florida in a nationally televised game on ESPN Sunday, August 29, 2021 at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. Bishop Sycamore lost the game 58-0.
The football team for Columbus online school Bishop Sycamore (players in black uniforms) line up for an offensive play against powerhouse IMG Academy out of Florida in a nationally televised game on ESPN on Sunday, August 29, 2021 at the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton. Bishop Sycamore lost the game 58-0.

Updated September 2, 2021, 7:40 a.m.

A high school football team in Columbus suffered a major defeat to one of the top teams in the country on Sunday and now faces questions about whether it misrepresented itself to ESPN as having better players than it does. It was also the second game the team played over the weekend.

Bishop Sycamore, which refers to itself as a private online high school and plays independently of the Ohio High School Athletic Association, on Sunday was blown out 58-0 against the national powerhouse IMG Academy out of Florida in a game at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

Halfway through the game, the ESPN commentators stated that Bishop Sycamore claimed they had Division I prospects on their roster but that ESPN could not verify those claims. As the game progressed, the commentators began to express concern for the safety of the Bishop Sycamore players.

"Bishop Sycamore told us they had a number of Division I prospects on their roster, and to be frank, a lot of that, we could not verify. They did not show up in our database, they did not show up in the databases of other recruiting services," ESPN's Anish Shroff said while calling play-by-play in the second quarter when IMG was up 30-0. "So, OK, that’s what you’re telling us, fine, that’s how we take it in. From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a fair fight, and there’s got to be a point where you’re worried about health and safety."

Ronald Peterson, the director of Bishop Sycamore High School and a coach on the football team, denied the team misrepresented themselves to ESPN and defended their decision to play the blowout game.

“We may not have, not even so much the talent, but the depth to win those games, but sometimes it's not just about the wins and losses for these kids,” Peterson said.

Peterson said his players want to play against highly talented teams.

"We've always played a tough schedule, and we do that not because people give us money to play the game,” he said. “You know, some teams will help us with travel; some don't. But the reality of it is we play it because we want to give our kids exposure against some of the best teams in the country.”

Peterson said on Monday a group called Good Iron Prep contacted Bishop Sycamore to play against IMG. Peterson went into great detail about the process and said that the organization couldn't find an Ohio team to play IMG because they were so good. However, attempts to confirm the existence of Good Iron Prep online were unsuccessful. ESPN said the game was arranged by the Paragon Marketing Group.

IMG Academy is a boarding school that features numerous players who have committed to play some of the top teams in the country including but not limited to Alabama, Clemson and Florida State. At least three of IMG's players are being recruited by Ohio State. Three current Ohio State football players graduated from the school.

Bishop Sycamore played the game in Canton on Sunday night, just 48 hours after playing at Sto-Rox High School in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. Bishop Sycamore lost that game 19-7. They also opened the season on August 19 at Akron Hoban High School and lost 38-0.

Bishop Sycamore opened the season with three games in 10 days.

Peterson confirmed the team did play Friday night in Pennsylvania "to give players who hadn't had a chance to play in their previous game some field time."

The website Awful Announcing reviewed the broadcast of Friday night's game and it "seems to show Bishop Sycamore players wearing the same numbers and in the alignments we saw Sunday."

On the broadcast, ESPN's announcers said Bishop Sycamore started its football program in 2019.

A spokesperson for the OHSAA said in a statement that “Bishop Sycamore is not an OHSAA member school, so we don’t have much information about them. Whether or not they are an actual school would be up to the Ohio Department of Education, not the OHSAA. Our member schools are permitted to play non-members, but they don’t receive any computer points for playing them in football.”

Peterson said Bishop Sycamore was founded four years ago, is registered with the Ohio Department of Education, and that they don't receive funds from the state because they are a private school with mostly online classes.

The Ohio Department of Education listed Bishop Sycamore as a non-chartered, non-tax-school for the 2020-21 school year. According to the Ohio Department of Education, "Non-Chartered, Non-Tax Supported Schools (NCNT) are schools that, because of truly held religious beliefs, choose to not be chartered by the State Board of Education."

"Bishop Sycamore, like I said, was founded simply because we wanted to help young men who needed help,” Peterson said. “And so, our young men, they do community service, we have - we have - counselors that assist them.”

For the 2020-21 school year, Ohio Department of Education had the school's physical address listed as Resolute Athletic Complex on Chiller Lane on Columbus' east side.

Content from a basic website for Bishop Sycamore High School that was almost entirely focused on its football team was removed sometime on Monday or early Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, the web address for the online school led to a page that read, "Our site is coming soon. We are doing some maintenance on our site."

Kimberly Elchlepp, a spokesperson for ESPN, said in an email statement that they regret what happened and have discussed it with Paragon Marketing Group, which secured the matchup and handles the majority of ESPN’s high school event scheduling.

“They have assured us that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward,” Elchlepp said.

Corrected: September 1, 2021 at 2:44 PM EDT
A previous version of this story indicated the Bishop Sycamore was an online charter school. For the 2020-21 school year, they were classified as a non-chartered, non-tax-school by the Ohio Department of Education.
Nick Houser leads the digital media team and oversees all things digital, including wosu.org, columbusneighborhoods.org, digital content, the WOSU Public Media Mobile App, social media, enewsletters, podcasts and on-demand video.