Current Viral Sport

The story of a quasi-school that got on national TV.

IMG Academy is America’s most notable example of a high school that is not designed to be a school. IMG, an athletics prep school in Bradenton, Florida, does have teachers and classes. But it’s also one of the only honest places at its end of the big-time sports pipeline, because IMG admits what it is: a place for star athletes to incubate for a bit. However, if someone had told you a week ago that IMG would play a nationally televised game on ESPN, and that the biggest viral story on the sports internet for several days after would be about a purported “fake school,” you would not assume that the school at issue was something other than IMG Academy. Yet that is just what has happened, and it’s all thanks to a school, which may or may not be an actual school, called Bishop Sycamore.

Andy Staples and Ari Wasserman of The Athletic have reported out the backstory of how one man invented Bishop Sycamore and got it onto the Worldwide Leader’s airwaves. In short, it’s an online school that lacks much of an internet presence, isn’t recognized by the high school sports association in its home state of Ohio, and doesn’t have a clearly defined roster. While much is still unknown, it’s extremely clear that this purported school should not have been playing against IMG’s roster of four- and five-star college recruits, much less doing it on national TV. Fortunately, nobody got seriously hurt in the course of Bishop Sycamore’s 58-0 loss—a legitimate worry, and one that ESPN’s broadcast team expressed while airing the game. The injury risk seemed heightened given that Sycamore had played (and lost) in Pittsburgh two nights earlier:

How did this cloudy entity find the national spotlight? One answer is that some people missed some things, or were actively misled. (ESPN has pointed the finger at a marketing firm that books its high school events.) The simplest explanation, if you are too dizzy to wait for Reddit sleuths, Rivals message board posters, and/or investigative journalists to get all the details, is that Bishop Sycamore fills a market niche.

The first and most important underlying condition here is sports media’s undying thirst for content. ESPN’s channels are plastered with college games from Labor Day through Thanksgiving, while analysis of those and pro games covers plenty more time. ESPN had one last weekend of open air before that near-endless fountain of football programming. The solution: high school games. Rights fees for high school contests are almost literally nothing. If anyone asks, “Why is there high school football on my TV right now?” that is the main reason.

Next: High school football and the adjoining world of college recruiting are ripe for internet fabulism. One variety of this is routine fibbing: a player knocks a few hundredths of a second off his 40-yard dash time, or reports having a scholarship offer from a school where no such offer exists. The more audacious path is the creation of a fake identity. No one who lived through it will ever forget the legend of Unique Brissett II, who roped in several reporters while ripping highlight tapes from other players. The case of fake recruit Blake Carringer getting a three-star rating on the industry-standard 247Sports Composite will also live forever in the hallowed circles of college football posting.

What Bishop Sycamore appears to have done is yet more brazen: large-scale fakery on an institutional level rather than a personal one. In the interest of fairness, I must acknowledge that Bishop Sycamore insists it’s not lying about having a handful of recruits with Football Bowl Subdivision offers. But I can’t square that with this and will not try to:

The pandemic has only made the whole high school football ecosystem more online, to the extent that was possible. College coaching staffs have wised up to benign fraud and view unverified workout stats with skepticism. But the increasing internetization of everything seems to have made it more feasible for a so-called school’s officials to make deals entirely over the phone and computer and not, for instance, be made to show that it actually exists. If someone can generate a flurry of news coverage about one non-real player, then of course a school (or whatever) with questionable bonafides could get one marketing person to book it for an event.

Anyone who follows college sports even casually has spent some time criticizing the NCAA, an organization that makes itself an appealing target. But the NCAA does at least one thing pretty well: It makes sure the institutions that participate in college sporting events are at least something approximating real schools. Sure, that broad definition includes places like Liberty, but Liberty has a campus and verifiably real classes. You have to get pretty far down the college sports pecking order to find anything resembling this situation.

Along a similar line, it would be reasonable to think the Ohio High School Athletic Association would have at some point made some noise about Columbus-based Bishop Sycamore. (I use the term “Columbus-based” as loosely as possible). It doesn’t appear that sort of due diligence happened, even though in 2020 (the first year for which Sycamore has a results page on MaxPreps), it played definitely real Ohio schools like Saint Ignatius and Saint Edward. The only mention of “Bishop Sycamore” on the state association’s site is in an embedded MaxPreps scoreboard.

If the OHSAA failed to do quality control on a team from Ohio, why should we expect anyone else to have done it? Do you make the time to check if a bad high school football team is on the up and up? I do not. To that end, Sycamore played IMG away from TV cameras in 2020, and no one seemed to bat an eye.

I’m not sure we need to find deep meaning in a school (or whatever) getting a few days of viral fame for losing a widely televised high school football game with players who appear to be well into their 20s. It is clearer today than it was last week, however, that in our current media environment, and in a sport that encourages internet fibbing, something like Sycamore’s rocket rise was inevitable. Bishop Sycamore’s fall now too seems inevitable. But as of Tuesday, they’re still scheduled to play a Kentucky state champion later this week. And that game will not be on national television.

Update, Aug. 31, 2021, 5:18 p.m. ET: Uh, never mind about that game scheduled for later this week.

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