Navy, Army probe finds no racist intent in hand gestures

Army and Navy members meet half way as US President Donald Trump attends the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 14, 2019. (Getty Images)

Hand gestures flashed by West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen during the televised Army-Navy football game were not racist signals, military investigations have concluded.

A Navy probe of the event found that the students were participating in a “sophomoric game” on Saturday and had no racist intent. An Army statement Friday also rejected any racist overtones, saying the hand gestures were “not associated with ideologies or movements that are contrary to the Army values.”

The Navy said officials are, however, disappointed in the immature behavior of the students and “their actions will be appropriately addressed.” There were no details about their exact punishment, but a Navy report on the investigation said the two midshipmen should face “administrative action” for “failure to use good judgment.”

Clips of the hand gestures by the students went viral on social media and immediately raised questions about whether they were using a “white power” sign. But others suggested it was part of what's called the “circle game,” in which someone flashes an upside-down OK sign below the waist and punches anyone who looks at it.

The Navy said that reviews of the footage, more than two dozen interviews and background checks by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the FBI determined that the two freshmen midshipmen were participating in the “circle game” with West Point cadets.

The investigation added that the two naval academy students “exhibited genuine shock” and said they were not aware of the racist connotation of the hand gestures. It said interviews with friends, roommates and other commanders also found no links to the white power movement.

Navy Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations, said sailors are expected to conduct themselves with integrity and character at all times.

“To be clear, the Navy does not tolerate racism in any form," said Gilday. "And while the investigation determined there was no racist intent behind these actions, our behavior must be professional at all times and not give cause for others to question our core values of honor, courage and commitment.”

The Navy investigation also made a number of recommendations to better coordinate and screen midshipmen who may be in high visibility areas for major events such as the game day. And it said there should be more training for the students on how they should conduct themselves.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point reached similar conclusions. Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, West Point superintendent, expressed disappointment in the cadets' immature behavior. The cadets involved also will receive “appropriate administrative” or disciplinary actions, West Point said. No details were provided.

“The American people trust our Soldiers to do the right things the right way," said Gen. James McConville, chief of staff of the Army. "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.”

The circle game, around for generations, was featured in the early 2000s sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” and has made a resurgence as a photo bomb prank in sports team photos--along the same line as “bunny ears” fingers. In more recent years, it became an internet meme in a online game of “gotcha."

But the Anti-Defamation League said the gesture, with the thumb and forefinger touched in a circle and the other fingers outstretched, has also been appropriated as a signal for white supremacy. That started as a hoax perpetuated on the online message board 4chan. The original idea was to take an innocent and common gesture and arbitrarily transform it into something that would enrage liberals.

The campaign was so successful that the gesture came to be used semi-sincerely by Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other white nationalists to signal sympathizers in public places.

In 2018, the U.S. Coast Guard suspended an officer who appeared to be making the hand sign during a Hurricane Florence television broadcast.