After a year filled with cancellations and postponements because of COVID-19, the 2021 high school football season was getting off to a seemingly normal start. Teams had worked hard over the summer, sweating through two-a-days and weightlifting sessions, with an eye toward an (hopefully) uninterrupted and successful football season. For the most elite high school football programs this past weekend offered up the opportunity to face other elite programs, or at least what they expected to be other elite programs, on national television as part of the Geico High School Football Kickoff. ESPN’s broadcast of one game from the Hall of Fame Classic, however, did not feature two elite programs and may not have even featured two real high schools.
FootballScoop, a Sports Illustrated Media Network partner, first broke the story: "A (possibly fake?) high school apparently duped its way into playing on ESPN." IMG Academy, an actual high school football power house and reigning national champion, earned the honor of playing in the prestigious Hall of Fame Classic on ESPN. Its opponent, Bishop Sycamore, on the other hand, raised questions as to whether it was even an actual high school, let alone a nationally recognized high school football powerhouse. Needless to say, the game was not particularly entertaining: IMG Academy won 58-0. (IMG Academy beat Bishop Sycamore 56-6 last season as well). During the game, things got interesting as ESPN’s announcers began questioning how Bishop Sycamore made it into the game in the first place.
Apparently, Bishop Sycamore informed ESPN that it had acquired several Division I prospects and, even though ESPN was unable to confirm that these prospects played for Bishop Sycamore, ESPN slotted them in to play on national television. How could this have happened?
In order to select high school teams to play in games that will be aired by ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports reportedly utilizes Paragon Marketing Group who helps select the teams that will play, works through scheduling, obtains sponsorships for the games, and handles logistics on game day. And yet, it is believed that Paragon Marketing Group selected Bishop Sycamore to play in the televised game despite FootballScoop’s Zach Barnett looking into the school after the fact and not being able to find much of anything to indicate that the school was even real:
Vanishingly little on Sycamore's founding exists on the internet. What appears to be the school's website, BishopSycamore.org, is basically a blog; its most recent post, on May 21, explains how to catch a college recruiter's attention on social media. The website's About Us section is blank.
By any indication, Bishop Sycamore appears to be an online charter school that provided Paragon Marketing Group with an inaccurate roster in order to make it into a nationally televised game. The defense offered by Paragon Marketing Group’s president boiled down to little more than saying “our bad” – the president acknowledged that the company wishes they had done more due diligence in vetting Bishop Sycamore, but also that it was hard to schedule people to would actually agree to play IMG Academy.
Andrew Brandt is fond of saying that “there will be lawyers” when things go awry in the realm of sports. With the Bishop Sycamore fiasco, will there be lawyers? If so, what cause of action is ESPN likely to bring? And who will ESPN seek a remedy from? Without being able to review ESPN’s contract with Paragon Marketing Group, it is hard to answer these questions. From the outside looking in, it seems as though ESPN could make the argument that it sustained reputational harm and financial harm (in the form of lost viewership) resulting from Paragon Marketing Group’s negligence in procuring a less-than-suitable high school for ESPN’s television broadcast. In all likelihood, ESPN cuts it losses and lawyers will probably not be involved in this instance. But if ESPN did proceed with legal action, there is the possibility that Bishop Sycamore gets dragged in because of its false and misleading statements to Paragon Marketing Group. A word to the wise – be diligent with your due diligence.