DEFENSE: Bishop Sycamore Owner Andre Peterson Comes to League of Justice To Tell His Story As Ohio Governor Calls Team A Scam & Asks AG to Investigate.
The high school football world needs Bishop Sycamore back in action, according to its owner and founder, Andre Peterson, an ordained minister in Columbus, Ohio. Peterson says political forces are at work to make sure the controversial program never operates again, despite the Ohio Department of Education saying it can lawfully operate as a non-taxpayer funded school.
“I think that because there’s so much public pressure, I think people feel like they have to do something when they themselves, they are not really sure,” Peterson said.
Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine recently called upon the state’s Attorney General to investigate the school and its principals after the state’s Department of Education released a scathing investigative report on its operations.
“I don’t know that Bishop Sycamore can ever have a football program again and the reason why is because of all the bad publicity,” said Peterson, who claims kids are still sending him their film on Twitter and want to join the team. “I do know that there’s still a need. I do know that there’s still young men who are struggling at traditional school that may need another avenue. I do know that there’s kids who are going to school, that their coaches aren’t doing their due diligence as far as helping them to that next level.”
Peterson continued, “I’m not saying that we did everything perfect because we had our struggles… as far as the financial stuff is concerned. But the desire and the things that we did do I feel like ‘great’ because we have been able to get kids into college. We have been able to get kids noticed throughout the college world.”
Peterson, who came to League of Justice to tell his side of the story, says college coaches have called him to tell him to keep his head up and some say, “we know what you’re doing.”
Peterson was shocked when the Ohio Department of Education’s Investigative Report came out last month and government officials labeled Bishop Sycamore a scam. The traveling football program out of Ohio billed itself as a legitimate school for both high school and post-grad education.
“The problem with a scam is you have to gain something and I’m still waiting for somebody to tell me what did I gain? ” said Peterson. “What did I get out of this? Because it wasn’t financial. “
“Well, what did you get out of it?” League of Justice Founder Amy Dash asked Peterson in an exclusive, nearly two-hour-long phone interview.
“I tell the kids and this is the honest to Gd truth, I tell the kids that my payment for this is when they can sit down at a table and choose a school that they want to go to. Not that they have to go to… That’s what I get out of it,” Peterson replied. “I get out of it by helping young men who have been given up on, whether it’s through their school system or whether it’s through society or whatever… [I] help them try to achieve something that they at some point felt like was unachievable. There is literally no gain other than that for me. I work a regular job and believe me I work 60/70 hours a week at that job.”
Peterson claims he used to visit the Bishop Sycamore football team at eleven o’clock at night and sometimes supervise the players until three o’clock in the morning to make sure they were staying focused and out of trouble. The makeshift team, with players from all over the country and across the world, lived in apartments in Columbus, Ohio, where Peterson and Coach Roy Johnson ran the Bishop Sycamore football program. The program consisted of a mix of online schooling and a group of players that traveled to football camps to gain exposure and meet college coaches. Last August, the team began playing a seasonal schedule, but was only a few games in before gaining national attention.
The program was essentially shut down after the team competed against high school football powerhouse IMG on ESPN. The nationally televised game left the Internet ablaze after Bishop Sycamore lost 58-0 and broadcasters questioned whether it was a real or a fake school. Safety issues became paramount as players shared gear and news surfaced that the team had played in another football game just two days before the one with IMG.
As reporters began to dig, information surfaced about outstanding debts, a shocking report of an arrest warrant associated with the team’s head coach Roy Johnson and state registered addresses that were supposed to be housing and educating the students but were really the sites of empty parking lots and strip malls.
The media attention and a public outcry by some former parents of students from the program led to an investigation by the state’s Department of Education. Scheduled opponents canceled future football games against the team and over the next few weeks, almost all of the players voluntarily left to return home, except two, one of whom is Peterson’s son Javan.
Peterson came to League of Justice to give his side of the story after the Ohio Governor called upon the state’s Attorney General to investigate Bishop Sycamore for potential civil or criminal violations of state laws. He claims the only thing the program did wrong, according to the report, was to neglect to notify some of the students’ home school districts that the kids were attending online school. The report, though highly critical, did not find any violations of Ohio’s laws since the state DOE does not regulate non-chartered, non-taxed schools beyond the formality of a registration requirement. But the headlines still blared the report’s conclusion: that the school was a scam.
“It was really a shock honestly,” Peterson said of the report’s findings. Below, he addresses some of the most outstanding questions about the program.
Were Bishop Sycamore’s Players Attending School?
The state’s investigation said it could not verify whether Bishop Sycamore was a school with certified teachers or whether the students even attended online classes. Peterson says his program’s online learning setup was easy to verify.
During the 2019 school year, Peterson claims the students in the program were being educated in-person by an Ohio Charter School called “Youthbuild.” Peterson says at least one of his former players graduated from the school, which is recognized by the Ohio Department of Education.
The DOE report confirms that Bishop Sycamore was affiliated with Youthbuild until the program distanced itself from Bishop Sycamore later that year. It sent Peterson a cease and desist letter, after receiving an invoice for thousands of dollars worth of football equipment. Peterson says it was always part of the deal that Youthbuild would fund the football program. In exchange, he said Bishop Sycamore was feeding Youthbuild students who were paying tuition.
The next year, in 2020, Peterson claims he and Johnson had a plan to join Franklin University and rent a portion of one of the college’s buildings to run their program. He said the two met with University officials, there were tours and an agreement was drawn up, but then Covid hit. Franklin University shut down its whole campus and Peterson said it pulled out of the agreement. He says he notified the Department of Education in Ohio and representatives said it was fine for him to put his students online to learn because at the time the “entire columbus school district was” online.
For the 2020 school year, Peterson says he and coach Roy Johnson began educating the players through online school Graduation Alliance. After Graduation Alliance allegedly began overbilling them, the program moved to Acellus, an online learning program that is used by students across the country. Peterson wonders why the DOE did not simply contact Acellus and verify that it has accredited teachers as part of its program rather than accuse the program of not educating its students.
By January of 2021, just before a new batch of players arrived, Peterson and Johnson found a workout facility called “Resolute Fitness” in Ohio and claim to have drawn up an agreement to rent out the top floor of the facility for the players to do their courses online. The fitness facility had several 40 yard fields. Despite signing the agreement, Peterson claims Covid prevented the team from using Resolute’s facilities, forcing players to do a majority of their coursework from the apartments.
The players, many of whom were still in high school, had the responsibility to log themselves on and do their own schoolwork. Peterson said he and Johnson had administrator access and would followup with the players who were not logging on and in some instances notify their parents. He noted, he could not force students to take their courses but claims he always provided the opportunity.
Were Bishop Sycamore Players High School Grads in Their 20s and 30s?
Despite internet rumors that Bishop Sycamore had players in their 20s and 30s, LOJ has not found evidence of this and Peterson adamantly denies it. League of Justice has spoken with more than two dozen players from Bishop Sycamore’s most recent team and all of them represent they are either 17, 18 or 19. A girlfriend of Roy Johnson’s has also represented that she booked most of their plane tickets and no-one was older than 19. The Ohio Department of Education’s investigative report says that Graduation Alliance informed the Department that Bishop Sycamore had 19 students enrolled in its online program back in 2020 and the students ages ranged from 15-20. It appears that any player over the age of 19 was not on the most recent team that played in the IMG game.
According to Peterson, the reason so many players were 19 is because the team consisted of players who were still in high school as well as players who had already graduated high school. The players who had graduated were at Bishop Sycamore doing a post-grad year, either to get their grades up or because covid forced them to miss their senior year of football.
Due to Covid and exceptions made by the NCAA in its Covid policy, many kids who may not have been eligible to play college football, could now be eligible if they took courses and got their grades up and used their post-grad years at Bishop Sycamore to do that. Post-grad years are also known as reclassifying. This is nothing new. Reclassifying is a longstanding and common practice which has been occurring across sports nationwide for some time.
“Reclassification, when you graduate, is really just called a prep year,” Peterson said, “You can take courses or you don’t have to take courses. That prep school can offer “life” school classes, it can offer “religious” school classes. A lot of prep schools, when the kids come there, they may take a course or two in college. It’s not a new thing. Basketball kids reclass. It’s just newer in football. There’s powerhouses that reclass kids… and so there’s nothing new that we’ve done. “
“You’d agree that your program was a little bit unusual in the sense that you had kids there that were just playing football?” asked Dash, referencing the fact that not everyone was taking online courses.
“No, they still had to take the life skill courses that we offer, they had to take community service and if they wanted to they could take college courses if they wanted to and the religious courses that we offer, that we just do on our own,” replied Peterson.
“I’m just addressing the public perception of people who think that there were just guys there playing football,” Dash said.
“The kids that were supposed to be taking courses were taking courses,” Peterson said. “Every kid had the opportunity to be online whether they had graduated already or whether they had not graduated.”
In many states even post-graduate programs need to meet certain state educational requirements. It appears that in Ohio, the laws are more lax which left Bishop Sycamore unregulated.
Did Bishop Sycamore Pay for Housing for the Players?
In terms of housing, Peterson says he was housing the students in apartments. Peterson admits he did have to move the kids out of the apartments once due to eviction but says it was during the early years of the program when people who had committed to help pay for the housing, backed out. He claims all housing for 2021 was paid for.
“We didn’t have any issues with the apartments in 2021,” Peterson said, explaining that he had tuition money to use to pay for them. Peterson said the earlier eviction arose because he tried not to charge tuition in the early years of the program. When Peterson realized his third party funding promises were falling through, he began charging players around $1500- $2000 to participate and claims he used this money to pay for the apartments, food, supplies, and travel for the team.
“How do you respond to people who say: ‘Even though you were trying to sort of make things happen, you shouldn’t have had those kids there unless the program was properly set up?” Dash asked.
“With any business you try to make things work out the best way possible, and so sometimes those things don’t always work out the way that you want them to, so you try to correct them or you try to get help in doing it. You try to make sure that whatever you’re lacking, that you have,” replied Peterson. “It wasn’t just ‘well, we didn’t have a place.’ We were securing places that we couldn’t use or weren’t open just because of Covid, period and so it wasn’t because we didn’t have a place. I can understand the people’s perception of that part of it, but that’s a growing pain for any business.”
“I think the difference that people are highlighting here is that these are young kids who have their futures and their education on the line,” Dash said. “It’s not like you’re running a tile store where maybe your shipments aren’t coming in on time. These are, some of them, are children in your care who are not yet eighteen. So, I think that’s where people are questioning, why were you guys even operating if you couldn’t get facilities, if you couldn’t get a location and if you couldn’t have you know more stability, consistency and supervision for the kids?”
“The truth of the matter is, what people fail to realize is we get some young men that were failed by the school system,” Peterson told Dash, describing players who spend years playing high school football only to graduate with GPAs too low to afford them an entry into college.
“Now the goal that you had for four years, nobody pulled you to the side and said ‘hey look we gotta get this right, what can we do to help you? “ said Peterson. “And so when they come to us, we’re trying to fix something in eight months that’s been wrong for four years but the problem is there’s a need for that.”
For the players who did not need to boost their GPAs, Peterson said they came to the program because they had other needs that were not met by their home districts, like needing more exposure to meet college coaches, needing more film to show to scouts or not getting enough attention from their coaches to reach their full potential.
Did Any Bishop Sycamore Players Have D1 offers?
Peterson and Coach Johnson have been heavily criticized for running a program that lacked stable housing, schooling, facilities and structure, with many simply labeling Bishop Sycamore a made up school. But Peterson says his mission was anything but made up. It was full of a purpose: to get talented athletes into Division One colleges when their communities failed them. The IMG game made the team the laughing stock of the internet and ESPN broadcasters said they could not verify that any of the players had D1 offers. League of Justice discovered the team had a large handful of talented players, many recruited and with college offers. Jeremy Naiborne, Trilian Harris, Joshua Lorick, Greg Sullivan-Crockett, Adrian Brown, Teldrin Foster, Armond Scott, Justin Daniel are just a few of the names.
Quarterback Trilian Harris, received an offer from Nevada and was featured in an LA Times article. Wide receiver, Naborne, was heavily recruited, receiving offers from Tennessee and TCU. Scott was recruited by and received an offer from Syracuse. These players showed up easily on 247Sports. While many players who attended Bishop Sycamore in the past have gone on to college, some of the top players from the ESPN televised game against IMG told League of Justice that they either lost interest from colleges or lost their offers altogether due to the negative publicity surrounding the team’s ESPN debut. The young men, no less talented, are struggling to find opportunities, with some enrolling in JUCO in hopes of getting onto college teams next year. Many of their parents feel their sons are the real victims.
As told by the players, and confirmed by Peterson, most of the Bishop Sycamore players who played in the IMG game began arriving to the program around May or June of 2021. A group of friends from California, including Harris, Naiborne and Lorick, saw Bishop Sycamore as a way to get in front of college coaches, lead a team and compete against the best of the best in high school football. Johnson and Peterson asked matchmaker Joe Maimone, who ran his own private high school football matching service, for the absolute best schedule he could put together, according to Maimone. The matchmaker visited Resolute Fitness and met with both Peterson and Johnson and says he was impressed with the operation. He told League of Justice he wanted to be like the George Bailey of high school football, the protagonist from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and was immediately attracted to the philanthropic nature of the operation. He got the team an all-star schedule.
Peterson says that prior to the start of the season, during that Spring & Summer of 2021, he and Johnson took around seventeen or eighteen players to football camps in various states including Georgia and Texas. The camp tours got many players struggling to get top D1 offers noticed, and for those who were already noticed, it added more tentative offers to their plates, he says.
“It gave them a lot of exposure,” Peterson said. “We did have a number of kids that got offers from Universities, whether it was Division two, Division one, some Power 5s. That was the goal of the camp, to get these kids in front of these coaches… and so that was a big success.”
At the time, the players were also staying in local apartments in Ohio that Peterson claims he paid for. After multiple noise complaints forced another eviction, Peterson says many of the kids returned home and about eight of them stayed in Ohio to live with Peterson and Johnson, sleeping on their couches and on air mattresses, while they visited more football camps.
However, by August of 2021, when the season was about to begin, more players began to return to Ohio, some even flew in from other countries. Some have criticized Peterson and Johnson’s recruitment of players from abroad, saying it undermines their claims that they were trying to create a philanthropic style program since it was not focused on local Ohio youth. In fact, only a small portion of the team came from Ohio, with players coming from Georgia, California and other locations nationwide. When the motley mix of players began to descend upon Ohio again in August to start the season, Peterson claims he had new housing setup and paid for.
Many former players from Bishop Sycamore’s recent team said that prior to the start of the season, the team had conditioning sessions but never held formal practices, which could account for the team’s poor performance against IMG. Peterson denies this.
“We did do practices,” Peterson said. “We don’t have 60, 70 kids like a lot of other schools do so part of it was conditioning but we did practice. ”
Peterson said the practices were limited because there was a helmet shortage due to Covid.
“Wouldn’t that be a safety reason to not continue the program?” Dash asked.
“You can practice without contact,” Peterson said. “We weren’t hitting or anything. They were literally just going through the process that you normally would go through…”
Did Bishop Sycamore Trick Its Way Onto ESPN?
Contrary to popular belief, Peterson says Bishop Sycamore did not trick IMG or ESPN. According to Maimone, the matchmaker who set up the match, Bishop Sycamore was the only team out of hundreds willing to play IMG on national television.
“We looked at that as an opportunity to maybe get some recognition for the program and the kids,” Peterson said.
“The [IMG] coach that was there, called us, so he calls us and was like ‘hey, look fellas, I appreciate what you guys are doing for these kids. So, if we can get you guys on ESPN, would you be willing to play?’ and we were like ‘yea, that’d be great!” said Peterson.
But, Peterson says when the IMG coach called Paragon, the company that sets up the matches, Paragon wanted IMG to compete against a higher-ranking program. At that point, Peterson says he decided it wasn’t going to happen anymore and scheduled another game, two days before the IMG one was set to air on ESPN. But, Paragon reportedly could not find another opponent to play IMG.
Maimone, a Billboard executive whose private company sets up matches for Paragon, free of charge, told League of Justice he contacted everyone on his client list, including hundreds of high schools and no one wanted to play IMG on ESPN. He said the only team that responded and volunteered to play IMG was Bishop Sycamore.
“[IMG] played a team called La Salle [Lancers] the following week. La Salle is again another powerhouse in Ohio,” Peterson said. “They do very well you know as far as putting kids in college. So, you would think the ideal thing was for Paragon to say, ‘Hey, look La Salle, why don’t you move your game up a week and play IMG on TV… they would not play IMG on TV.”
“So, it wasn’t about us tricking to get on ESPN,” Peterson continued. “It was literally that we were the only team that could take that game. [IMG] consistently puts kids in college power 5s, they consistently put kids in the NFL.”
The week after IMG defeated Bishop Sycamore on ESPN by a score of 58-0, IMG went on to defeat La Salle 58-7. While the Bishop Sycamore game became an internet sensation with widespread criticism of the team, the IMG blowout of La Salle received little to no attention beyond local news article blurbs.
“The only difference in that game was La Salle scored a touchdown,” said Peterson.
“So the reason [you lost by so much] is because IMG is so good that they embarrass many teams and not just your team?” Dash asked.
“They are considered the best of the best,” Peterson replied, going on to explain that IMG also had post-grad athletes on its team as well.
Peterson said that the team still played the game it initially scheduled two days prior to the IMG game and then took the IMG game as an extra addition to its schedule. The team was heavily criticized for allowing some of its players to play twice in a matter of days, after ESPN’s broadcasters cited safety concerns during the game.
What is Next For Bishop Sycamore?
Moving forward, Peterson says, he believes that Ohio’s Attorney General will seek an injunction to try to stop Bishop Sycamore from operating. The Ohio Department of Education’s report listed hundreds of schools registered in Ohio that fall under the same non-charter, non-tax school category as Bishop Sycamore. However, it does not appear the others are being investigated as of yet.
The report recommended that legislators update Ohio’s laws to make it harder for just anyone to create a non-regulated “school” in the state by labeling it a non-tax, non-charter school. Technically, in order to qualify for the exemption, a school must have a closely held religious belief. But, there are no provisions in the state’s laws allocating resources to investigate whether the hundreds of schools claiming the exemption are legitimate or to take any action in the event one is not. The report indicated that it could not determine whether Bishop Sycamore had any closely held religious beliefs and was not empowered to do anything even if it did not.
“We went over that with them because we do a lot of religious studies and stuff like that,” said Peterson, who has been an ordained minister since 2002. “That’s what we were basing our religious beliefs off of and so we had that conversation with them.”
Peterson says he is not concerned so much about criminal charges because the Ohio Attorney General already investigated his operation in the past. He says the AG looked into the nonprofit “Bishop Sycamore Foundation” that he and Johnson created in 2019 and found nothing. He says the foundation never engaged in fundraising and had no money. Peterson claims the same is true here, that he and Johnson spent all of the tuition money they received on the players’ hotels, flights, apartments, food, transportation, equipment and expenses. In addition, he claims they spent their own time, money and resources as well.
“You do it with the hopes of being able to help these young men,” said Peterson.
Peterson said his whole family pitched in to help, including his niece who lived at the apartment complex with the team while struggling with a heart condition and cooked for the players every day. When she was not available, he said his wife, who was undergoing chemo, cooked for the players, oftentimes using donated items from church food banks and organizations to feed the underfunded program.
Peterson said rather than be the target of an impending investigation, he would love to sit down and have a conversation with the Governor’s office and the Attorney General in lieu of a legal battle.
“Instead of you being able to judge Andre Peterson off of what you read, judge bishop sycamore for what you read, just sit down and talk to me,” he said. “I think that you have to look at the totality of it and if this program has kids in school that are taking classes right now, if we’ve had kids that have graduated from the program, then how can you say I don’t offer what I said I would offer?”
When asked by Dash how he feels about the large volume of people on social media who are fans of Bishop Sycamore and rooting for the team to return, Peterson replied that he tries to keep those who support him close but also stays off of social media due to the negativity.
“I truly believe there’s some people that just don’t wanna see the truth, there’s some people that no matter what you put in front of them, they wanna see what they wanna see,” he said. “It’s always disheartening when you have somebody who doesn’t know Andre Peterson to say ‘hey, yea he’s a crook,’ to say ‘yea, he’s a troubled person’ to say, ‘yea, he took advantage of these kids’, to say ‘yea, it’s all about the money, but don’t know you. [They] don’t understand the struggles that you have in trying to do something not because it benefits you but because you’re trying to help young men who need help.”
Peterson continued, “I’m dealing with young men who have lost close friends to the street violence and the emotional aspect of it that they have to deal with. But I’m not doing it for the game. I’m doing it because I truly feel like this is a calling for me, like this is something that Gd desires for me to do.”
“Is part of it Andre, that you and Roy really want to do these things to help the kids and you want to be the coaches of a great football team and maybe you guys haven’t had the resources to be able to fulfill your dreams to do this type of work?” Dash asked.
“That’s very much the case,” Peterson responded. “So, when you look at programs like ours most of them have financial backing. So, they don’t really have to do a lot of grants. They may have people who have donated money or people who have endowment and things like that and so the financial part they don’t worry about because it’s already taken care of. With us it’s different. In some areas of the United States, you know you can’t just get people to say ‘Hey look, you know, I like what you’re saying, show it to me on paper, let me see what you’re doing and you know what I’ll help you with it financially. We’ve never gotten that. And so, because we’ve never gotten that, it’s literally created the bigger issue.”
“Yeah. But if nobody would give you guys the money, do you think the reality is that even though you guys dreamed of coaching a team and running a program like this, you weren’t meant to do it because you couldn’t get the resources?” Dash asked. “You tried and you couldn’t, so therefore you shouldn’t have run the program? Was this sort of just you guys refusing to give up on something that you really wanted to do even though you didn’t have the means to do it?”
“When you say that it wasn’t meant to be as far as maybe it wasn’t meant for us to do that, “ said Peterson. “There’s many struggles that people have in life. I feel that they give up on what they were meant to do too early and so you always kinda hope that things are gonna turn around and it was gonna get better and that there was gonna work out and you kinda go from there.”
Peterson continued, “So, each year going into this, you know, we were trying to create some partnerships that would help us as far as that was concerned. The truth of the matter is that, um it’s hard for me to quit. It’s hard for me to quit because I know that there’s a need. I guess it’s kind of a catch 22 in that question because it’s like you know, yea we weren’t getting the support that we needed so why keep doing it? And, I understand that question. The answer is that we always hoped and prayed that that help would come and that we would successfully be able to do what we wanted to do as far as these kids was concerned.”
“So you were hoping for a success story?” asked Dash.
“Exactly,” said Peterson.
“That so far still hasn’t panned out for you guys,” said Dash.
“Well, here’s my thing,” said Peterson. “A success story can be as big or small as you wanna make it. So, there is a success for the young men who have been to this program and have went on to college. That’s a success story.”
“You feel good about that?” asked Dash.
“I feel great about it,” said Peterson.
While proud of some of the program’s successes in getting players offers and into college, Peterson says he also gets emotional when thinking about the ways in which the program failed.
“I’m a very emotional person and so when I feel like I’ve failed in an area, it hurts me to the core,” Peterson said. “It literally tears me up inside. So in some aspects of it when you look at it and you have those kids that say, ‘well yea, you know I didn’t get anything out of it,’ well part of that is you know we provided some things that maybe you didn’t take advantage of but it could’ve always been better. These kids never had to go and say ‘oh well, I don’t have a place to stay tonight.’ It was never the case.”
Peterson continued, “The truth of the matter is that these kids know who Andre Peterson is. They know who Roy Johnson is. They know that, you know, come hell or high water that we are gonna do whatever we can to help ’em and even now we do. Even with the kids that aren’t in the program, we still talk to some of those kids. Those kids who maybe had to go to a junior college. We still try to get them into schools. So, it’s not like it’s something that we said…forget about them let’s move on to the next year. No. These kids are a part of my life. These kids are forever a part of who I am.”
“The goal is always to be 100 percent,” Peterson said. “That’s always the goal. It’s just not always the case.”