It's fair to call IMG Academy 58, Bishop Sycamore 0 one of the greatest, most elaborate Catfishings in sports TV history. It was as if an entire team made up of Ron McKelveys, the 30-year-old who played at Texas under an assumed identity before outing himself just before the 1995 Sugar Bowl, made their way onto ESPN.
To understand how Bishop Sycamore fooled ESPN, one must first understand it wasn't ESPN they had to fool.
The weekend-long Geico High School Football Kickoff slate, like many of the high school events on ESPN's airwaves, was procured and managed by Paragon Marketing Group. Paragon has been in business since 1995 -- its major break was getting Major League Baseball to sell ads on the back walls of its dugouts -- and has arranged high school matchups for ESPN for nearly 20 years now, dating back to LeBron James and St. Vincent-St. Mary taking on Carmelo Anthony and Oak Hill Academy in 2002.
Paragon has since arranged over 700 matchups for ESPN, every one of them fraud-free, until Sunday.
On Monday, Paragon president Rashid Ghazi sent out this statement.
In regard to the IMG vs. Bishop Sycamore game, we were misled about Bishop Sycamore’s roster. On the Paragon end the vetting process should have been much more thorough in the weeks leading up to the game. We have helped place over 700 high school sporting contests on the ESPN Networks without a similar incident since 2002. Moving forward, in regards to independent non-traditional schools without an established track record, we will enhance our vetting process. Additionally, Paragon was not informed and had no prior knowledge that Bishop Sycamore players may have participated in a contest on 8/27. If we were aware of that game being played, we would have immediately cancelled the broadcast and event on 8/29.
“We regret that this happened and have discussed it with Paragon, which secured the matchup and handles the majority of our high school event scheduling," ESPN said in its own statement. "They have ensured us that they will take steps to prevent this kind of situation from happening moving forward.”
A Paragon source said the company was not aware Bishop Sycamore played Friday until it surfaced on social media once the game had already kicked.
Though a 2020 newspaper article said Bishop Sycamore's program launched in 2019, the MaxPreps database shows only an 0-6 2020 season. In one of those six games, IMG Academy pummeled Sycamore, 56-6.
Paragon said it was aware of the 2020 game, but arranged a rematch of the fledgling "school" -- which touts itself as an online-only prep school, and an Google Earth search of a listed address leads to an office park -- because Sycamore's representatives claimed its 2021 roster was remade with "25-26" Division I prospects.
Clearly, that was not true, as only around 30 players dressed out for Sunday's game.
What's more, multiple reports indicate the players in Sycamore uniforms are commonly well beyond their high school eligibility. (It should go without saying, but, Sycamore is not a member of Ohio's governing body for high school athletics.)
After publishing Sunday's article, multiple sources confirmed to me that players aged 20 and older commonly play for Sycamore.
"A high school coach came up to me at one of our camps and said, 'Hey, that corner over there used to be on my 7-on-7 team," one Power 5 recruiting staffer told me. "He had to stop playing because his ID said he was 21 years old."
"This is not on ESPN," the Paragon source told me. Multiple inquiries to establish who reached out to who between Paragon and Sycamore were not returned as of press time, but the source said it was "kinda both."
While the fault belongs to Paragon, the shame is ESPN's. Sunday afternoon's showcase -- on big-boy ESPN, no less, not tucked away on the U -- is perhaps the greatest instance of fraud ever to make the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader's air in more than 40 years on television. So, how did that post-production call between Paragon and Bristol go?
"We acknowledged to them we need to do a better job."