Alex Taranto

On the night of Oct. 12, a group of Rocklin, California police officers pulled up on a dozen high schoolers playing football in a parking lot. Instead of shutting down the game, they joined in — police vs. kids, four per side, playing two-hand touch under the glow of fluorescent streetlights. Kids peering from the sidelines went wild at the players’ every move, letting out piercing laughs and yelling “break him” after every nifty play. Miles Hughes caught the whole thing on tape. That night, he submitted the video to the @HouseofHighlights Instagram account, which posted it the next day with the caption: “They were playing football in a parking lot and the cops pulled up and got into the game. 🤣🔥” As a result, a lot of people ended up watching Miles Hughes’ video — over two million people since October 15.

House of Highlights, or HOH, is as a social media conglomerate that posts highlights from professional sporting events. It was created by a 25-year-old internet entrepreneur and NBA fanatic Omar Raja, who originally envisioned the account as a place to post memorable clips from the LeBron James era of the Miami Heat (his favorite team). Since its conception in 2014, HOH has been acquired first by Bleacher Report and then by ESPN. In the process, it has garnered 14.6 million Instagram followers and cemented Raja as one of the most influential figures in contemporary sports media.

HOH publishes at least a dozen videos a day, all of which garner millions of views and thousands of comments. Roughly half of their content is user-generated: videos that their followers send through direct message and that they then repost. And that’s where it gets really interesting. Some of these videos depict nonprofessional athletes being impressively athletic — a surprising play from a pickup basketball game, for instance, or a high school linebacker’s big hit. But many of the user “highlights” have a tangential (at most) relationship to sports. An older sibling encouraging a younger one to jump in the pool despite a fear of water; a guy on motorcycles fist-bumping other drivers at stoplights; a baby dancing to Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” with a caption that reads, “Realizing it’s the last weekend without NBA until June. 🤣”

Pairing user-generated content with professional highlights is a new phenomenon in sports media. In order to make sense of this practice — and reveal the parts of it that, I believe, warrant skepticism — we must remember that HOH is exclusively a social media product. It has no televised component (unlike, say, SportsCenter — the ESPN show and one of the few sports media Instagram pages with more followers than HOH), and is therefore catering only to the whims of the social media market. Understanding how it is doing that — how it blends the consumption of sports with the staging of social media — is crucial to fully understanding the product. And, as is the case with anything incredibly popular, understanding the product is essential.

In some ways, the influence of social media on HOH is quite obvious. HOH expands the word “highlight” to mean more than just professional athletic accomplishment: According to the app, everyday human experience produces highlights that deserve to be showcased on the same page as the most impressive athletic feats. Hughes provides a useful example. According to HOH, the video he posted is worth sharing alongside clips from professional sports. Is that not the foundational principle at the heart of social media itself? Facebook users are convinced that their status updates, profile pictures, likes/dislikes, the very minutia of their lives are interesting enough to be published. A platform like HOH adds incentive to a practice already almost ubiquitous — obsessively documenting everything in order to digitally validate human experience.

I am generally screen-averse and believe any incentive to further filter our lives through phones is bad, but I carry this unease especially so with an app like HOH. Sports are beautiful because they embody unmediated human contact, without the influence of screens, in a world where that’s increasingly rare. This “screenlessness” is true of the athletes, of course, but also largely of the spectators: While concertgoers watch their favorite bands through their smartphones, fans rarely do so with their favorite teams. In this way, sports are rooted in a profound humanity — one that, I believe is worth preserving. The picture of sports on HOH, however, is viewed through and thus rooted in the ubiquitous smartphone. As such, the app encourages its followers to always keep the camera rolling in case they catch a highlight, whether it be at the game or in their living room, as Hughes did in the parking lot on Oct. 12.

But there’s something else about the Hughes video — namely, the way it marks a distinct pattern within the app’s user-generated content. Some of HOH’s non-highlight posts have nothing at all to do with police in parking lots: many are dedicated to young parents conducting sports-themed gender reveals; many depict high school students buying their teachers expensive gifts; others portray little Asian kids being good at basketball. But the most categorically popular, by far, are videos depicting friendly neighborhood interactions with police. Most of them feature cops joining pickup games with groups of young black kids. Videos of this kind were published on Aug. 25, Sept. 7, Sept. 12, Sept. 20, and Oct. 13 of this year. It’s a pattern that is both oddly specific and uniquely recurrent.

A link between sports and law enforcement is not necessarily surprising. At an American professional sporting event, one is bombarded with patriotic subliminal messaging: military flyovers, flag unfurlings, emotional color guard ceremonies, enlistment campaigns and elaborate national anthem performances. The NFL, in fact, has received millions of dollars from the Department of Defense in exchange for just such practices. The recent controversy caused by professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem is inextricably tethered to this connection between sports and reverence for the law.

HOH brings that messaging to the level of the individual. It operates within the same framework, but showcases friendly neighborhood cops instead of elaborate military flyovers. It takes patriotic reverence out of the sky and into one’s backyard, and this practice is dangerous. We have to think critically about what a platform like this encourages us to consider a positive good. As with everything on social media, the relationship with police in videos like the one Hughes submitted is distilled and simplified, presented as only the shiniest version of itself. Looking at HOH, one would never be able to tell that there was a fatal police-involved shooting in Rocklin, California, in 2017 in which officers shot dead a 23-year-old named Lorenzo Cruz. One would never know that a year later and 20 miles down the road, Sacramento police would shoot Stephon Clark seven times, assuming that his cellphone was a pointed gun. HOH would never publish footage from the statewide movement it sparked.

It would be fair to point out that we shouldn’t expect outlets such as HOH to provide complex, nuanced treatments of political issues. I agree. But we should be careful about what is being treated as a “highlight,” as the most desirable version of something. HOH’s bio reads “Everything you need to see in sports.” What we consume becomes what we envision; those who are given only what HOH provides will cultivate a narrow understanding of a positive interaction with police. Friendly pickup games with cops are not bad, but they are also not “everything you need to see.” It would be just as easy to post “highlights” from a community coming together in protest, or an officer genuinely familiar with the neighborhood he is trying to protect. These are, of course, omitted from the HOH feed.

I suppose all of this — the police videos, the ubiquitous smartphones, the evolution of the “highlight” itself — is about distilling human experience. That is what we’re being asked to do every day in the age of social media: to film, to post, to reduce. Constructive policing could never be evoked in a 10-second clip; sports, at their very essence, are governed by human contact that Instagram could never contain. HOH is one of many engines of reduction that face us on the internet. Let’s remain skeptical of them all.