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Cadets Were Playing Game, Not Flashing 'White Power' Sign, Military Finds

Navy midshipmen march onto the field ahead of the annual NCAA college football game between the Army and the Navy in Philadelphia on Dec. 14.
Matt Rourke
Navy midshipmen march onto the field ahead of the annual NCAA college football game between the Army and the Navy in Philadelphia on Dec. 14.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point announced Friday it has wrapped up an investigation into whether cadets flashed a "white power" hand signal during ESPN's pregame broadcast of the Army-Navy football game earlier this month.

Its conclusion: "The cadets were playing a common game, popular among teenagers today, known as the 'circle game' and the intent was not associated with ideologies or movements that are contrary to the Army values," according to a statement from the academy where U.S. Army officers are trained.

The statement goes on to say that an unnamed military investigator discovered this game was being played before ESPN's anchor Rece Davis moved into the crowd to do a live hit for the network's College GameDay Dec. 14 broadcast.

In the 120th installment of the Army-Navy game, Navy won by a score of 31-7.

"We investigated this matter thoroughly," Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, said in a news release.

"Last Saturday we had reason to believe these actions were an innocent game and not linked to extremism, but we must take allegations such as these very seriously," Williams said.

"We are disappointed by the immature behavior of the cadets," he said.

The military academy says the cadets involved in flashing the gesture "will receive appropriate administrative and/or disciplinary actions."

The statement did not provide any additional details about what the potential disciplinary actions might entail.

According to a redacted memorandum addressed to Williams, "three cadets making the 'OK' hand gesture were positively identified."

It continues by explaining the "circle game" is "an internationally recognized game" where participants try to get someone else to look at the OK-like hand gesture, which is typically flashed below the waist.

"All three cadets also deny any intention of their 'OK' gesture having a meaning associated with white supremacy ideology or any other movement/ideology," the memorandum says.

The Navy Times, citing the military investigator, has additional details about how the game is played.

" 'The premise of the game is that a person makes a circle with their pointer finger and thumb below their waist,' the investigator wrote. 'If someone looks at the circle, they lose and the person who made the circle gets to punch the person who looked in the arm.'

"Other 'variations on the game' include photobombing a photograph while displaying the gesture, according to the investigation."

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, added the symbol to its "Hate on Display" database in September. As NPR reported at the time, fringe online message boards such as 4chan and 8chan deployed the "OK" sign in memes and other images, promoting it as a symbol of hate.

Citing sworn statements from the cadets involved, those surrounding them, as well as the cadet chain of command, "all state they believe that the gestures were a misplaced joke" and not anything to promote supremacist ideology, the investigator wrote.

The investigating officer recommended the academy develop procedures that "define leader actions" cadets should take before taking part in "wide exposure events." The officer also recommended incorporating discussions and briefings about hate speech and actions, adding: "A significant effort must be made to keep training current in order to address changes in the use of hate group symbology."

You can read the memorandum below.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.
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