Army-Navy attendees were playing game, not making white-power gestures, West Point says

"The intent was not associated with ideologies or movements that are contrary to the Army values," the U.S. Military Academy said of findings of an internal investigation.
Image: NCAA Football: Army at Navy
The 120th Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pa., on Dec 14, 2019.James Lang / USA Today via Reuters

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By Elisha Fieldstadt

Investigations into accusations that students at the Army-Navy football game made white power gestures determined they were playing a game and had no racist intentions, according to West Point and U.S. Naval Academy officials.

Pre-game festivities aired by ESPN on Dec. 14 showed cadets on both sides of the rivalry — two West Point cadets and one Naval Academy midshipman — making gestures as a camera focused on a sideline report.

At least one of the gestures resembled a white supremacist symbol described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "the thumb and forefinger joined together in a circle, the remaining three fingers splayed out behind."

The "OK" hand gesture only recently emerged as a "white power" symbol, stemming from a hoax by members of the website 4chan to "falsely promote the gesture as a hate symbol, claiming that the gesture represented the letters 'wp,' for 'white power,'" according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

An internal investigation by the U.S. Military Academy found that the students were not flashing a white power symbol but were rather playing a game, popular with teenagers, called "the circle game," in which a person makes a circle with their hands and holds it below their waist, in an effort to get another person to look, a West Point statement said Friday.

"The intent was not associated with ideologies or movements that are contrary to the Army values," the statement said.

The U.S. Naval Academy conducted a separate investigation that included review of video, more than two dozen interviews, and background checks, the academy said in a statement Friday. It came to the same conclusion — that midshipmen were playing the same game.

"We are confident the hand gestures used were not intended to be racist in any way," Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean Buck said in the statement. "However, we are disappointed by the immature behavior of the two Fourth Class Midshipmen, and their actions will be appropriately addressed."

Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, speaking in the U.S. Military Academy's statement, also called West Point cadets' behavior "immature." The cadets will also be disciplined, according to the statement.

"We must be mindful of behavior which brings that trust into question and ensure our actions meet the high ethical and professional standards our nation expects the American Soldier to uphold," Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. James C. McConville said.

Dennis Romero contributed.