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In 'BS High' and 'Telemarketers,' scamming is a group effort

Quarterback Trilian Harris is one of the players swindled in a phony high school football program the state of Ohio later called a "scam."
HBO
Quarterback Trilian Harris is one of the players swindled in a phony high school football program the state of Ohio later called a "scam."

The thriving true-crime category in television is dominated by murders and scams, and it tends to be far better at explaining the latter than the former. Murders often don't seem rationally motivated. Scams often do. And the best scam documentaries explore not just what drives the wild characters who hoodwink other people, but broken systems and wider failings that give them the ability to do it.

The latest scam documentary is from HBO. Called BS High, it's directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, and it follows the story of the Bishop Sycamore football team. The team was supposedly out of Bishop Sycamore High School in Ohio. Only as it turned out, there was no Bishop Sycamore High School. There was only a football team run by a guy named Roy Johnson, who recruited young men who hadn't successfully gotten into college football and promised them that his "program" could be a bridge for them to get there. But there were no classes and no academics, players say promises to improve grades or scores were fiction, and there wasn't even any real coaching of value. This all came to light in 2021 after Bishop Sycamore was beaten 58-0 in a game against Florida's IMG Academy (a highly rated actual sports academy) that was broadcast on ESPN.

A program that wasn't what it appeared to be

The specifics of the Bishop Sycamore scandal as reported in the documentary are upsetting, to say the least. On top of the broken promises, young men were injured, because the team didn't have proper training support and was utterly unqualified to play the teams they played. They weren't actually being prepared for elite football, which there's no evidence Johnson knew how to coach. Some even wound up with evictions on their personal records (which can create problems down the road when you're renting again) after players say Johnson failed to pay the bills he'd taken on for their housing. They also allege that he got them to apply for — or even applied on their behalf for — fraudulent PPP loans during the COVID pandemic (intended for small businesses) that provided money they could then give him to pay "tuition." (Johnson denies this, and some, but not all, of the other claims from players. He also admits at one point that he doesn't mind lying about anything he doesn't think anybody can prove one way or the other.) Players say they weren't even reliably fed, to the point where both Johnson and the team resorted to theft or scamming just so they could eat. These gory details are all fairly standard true-crime fare, despite their monstrousness.

Where BS High excels is in its consideration of the systemic failures that allow something like Bishop Sycamore to happen — and then potentially to keep happening. Sports journalist Bomani Jones says in the film that Johnson is not the problem, he's a symptom of the problem. The problem is the amount of money in high school sports, and the fact that because paying players is verboten, adults collect all that money for supplying the players that the system needs. (One of the more distasteful figures in the film is the guy in a suit whose company arranged Bishop Sycamore's punishing and totally inappropriate schedule, including the game against IMG Academy. There's money in "matchmaking" between high schools across the country, it turns out, no matter how lopsided the matchups.)

Jones talks, too, about the significance of the fact that most of these young players were Black, as is Johnson. "The fact that the players are Black is the reason why somebody like Roy Johnson would think that he could get away with this." And so, Jones says, it's the wrong angle to think in terms of why Johnson would do this to "his people." Jones says: "He did that to his people because that's who you can do this to. Black players are the commodity in athletics. They are the prize that everybody wants, and they are also the least respected people in the whole process. So yeah, he was going to do this to Black people."

As is often the case, there are apparent regulatory and media failures, too. Ben Ferree, a former investigator for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, spends a lot of time in the film explaining how the rules were not adequate to respond to the Bishop Sycamore scheme, nor could he get anyone in the media interested in reporting on it until the ESPN game. And when there eventually was an investigation from the state, the report called Bishop Sycamore "a scam," but concluded there was little authority to regulate it, because it was organized as a religious school.

Roy Johnson (right) presented himself as a high school coach.
/ HBO
/
HBO
Roy Johnson (right) presented himself as a high school coach.

Jones even indirectly indicts the complicity of ESPN itself when he talks about how bad the game had to be for the broadcast team to start calling out how dangerous and lopsided it seemed to be: "It takes a lot for a broadcast crew to be critical of what they are seeing in real time ... It had to be so transparently fraudulent that people who were on the payroll to promote this event could not keep up the story."

All of this exists alongside, not in place of, the presentation of Johnson as an unsettlingly cold figure who seems to feel only glee that he's made himself famous. Johnson is a colorful character, but also, as Ferree says, "His life provided a fantastic case study for all the flaws of the legal system." Johnson would have gotten nowhere without systems that were ripe to be exploited, and the filmmakers do a good job of balancing attention to the eye-popping persona that Johnson presents with asking bigger questions about whether the opportunities for exploitation that he capitalized on were created by forces much larger than any one guy.

Telemarketing, police, and drugs in the bathrooms

And that is the unlikely connection between BS High and HBO's other current scammer entry, the docuseries Telemarketers, which airs its third and final episode this weekend. Telemarketers is about a phenomenon familiar to many of us: the phone call asking for money for some kind of charity connected to local law enforcement. You're told that your donation will support the families of fallen officers or injured ones, or just that it will more broadly support the police. The telemarketing company at issue here, a New Jersey outfit called Civic Development Group, also raised money for other charities sometimes, like cancer foundations and firefighters, but it appears that police organizations were the bread and butter.

As it happens, in the early 2000s, a young guy named Sam Lipman-Stern started bringing a video camera to work to document the no-holds-barred, absolutely wild office environment at CDG, where nobody even cared if you did heroin in the bathroom as long as you hit your call numbers. Sam's grainy amateur video is the backbone of the early part of the series, which he directed with Adam Bhala Lough, a documentarian who happens to be his cousin. The two connected years later when Sam had already spent a lot of time "investigating" CDG after he left.

What's to investigate? Well, in reality, in the initial iteration of CDG — and the business changed shape a few times — only a small portion of the money collected went to the "charity." (And that's if the charity was legit at all.) The rest stayed with the telemarketing company. This isn't that shocking on its own; this is probably something a lot of people know about these kinds of calls by now. But in addition to being a solid character study of both Sam and his buddy Pat, a colleague and a seemingly legendary money-raiser (who is so Jersey he might as well have a fresh tomato growing out of his ear), Telemarketers also considers the systemic reasons why this scam worked.

Why did people donate?

One key detail is that when a caller donated money, they'd be sent a sticker that looked like an official police decal of some kind, and the telemarketer would tell you to put it on your car or on the door of your business. And while obviously there was never any promise that this would prevent you from getting a ticket or get you any better response for your premises, the telemarketers knew that one reason people wanted the decals was that ... well, yeah, maybe it would mean you wouldn't get a ticket. Of course, trading a law enforcement decision for a donation would be totally corrupt, meaning that while the scam certainly wasn't reliant on actual police corruption, it could be aided by a belief in police corruption — the belief that giving money could prevent you from being ticketed.

Patrick Pespas, a longtime telemarketer with Civic Development Group, is one of the very colorful characters in <em>Telemarketers</em>.
/ HBO
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HBO
Patrick Pespas, a longtime telemarketer with Civic Development Group, is one of the very colorful characters in Telemarketers.

At the same time, though, it capitalized on the sympathies of people who automatically wanted to give money as soon as law enforcement was mentioned, and it played on the fears of people who might be fearful of how they'd be treated by law enforcement if they didn't give. So you might give money because you respected the police (like a thank-you), or because you feared the police (like protection money), or because you thought the police would treat you better (like a bribe). So the film effectively posits that this scam wouldn't work nearly as well without the very particular relationships Americans have with policing. (Later installments go much deeper into the specifics of where this money was even going; suffice it to say it's complicated.)

Telemarketers also explores why this operation — which, unlike Bishop Sycamore, required a large number of people to participate in the scam — was able to find people who wanted to work there. And the answer is, obviously, limited options. They recruited callers at places like halfway houses, they hired people who had been incarcerated and had trouble getting work, they hired people whose addiction issues might make it hard for them to show up for a job where they couldn't get high in the bathroom during the day. Without a steady supply of people who didn't have a lot of better choices and thus kept the job even though they found it very distasteful and didn't feel great about working there, it stands to reason that somebody might have exposed the details of the operation a lot sooner.

And so, like BS High, we circle back to bigger questions. Not just "how did this work?", but "Why did this work?" If you assume that the world is full of budding scammers, then it's easy to think of successful rip-offs as individual failures in someone's defenses — "I'd never fall for that." But a lot of scams are not bespoke plots to capitalize on a person's particular frailties. They are aimed directly at systemic weaknesses, at gates we've left open for people to walk right through: poverty, capitalist exploitation, racism, community relationships with police, incarceration that dumps people out into the world with nothing.

A good scammer documentary keeps you entertained with larger-than-life characters, but has the sense, at its core, to recognize that if any one scammer had to do it all alone, it would never work. It may take a village to stop a scam, but sometimes, it takes the rules of the village to enable one, too.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.