Military Says Hand Gestures at Game Were Not White Power Signs

Military officials said on Friday that their investigations had found that Army cadets and Navy midshipmen who flashed hand symbols during a nationally televised football pregame show last week were playing a juvenile game known as “the circle game,” and not making hand gestures associated with white nationalists and other hate groups.

The United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy announced the finding in separate statements, less than a week after reports that the cadets and midshipmen were making racist gestures during ESPN’s broadcast of the Army-Navy game.

The broadcast showed cadets and midshipmen in the stands flashing the gesture, which looks like an “O.K.” sign, at least five times behind the ESPN broadcaster Rece Davis before the game, which was held on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

President Trump attended the game and met with players in each team’s locker room before the game.

The Naval Academy said its investigation included a review of video footage, more than two dozen interviews, and background checks by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the F.B.I.

The investigation concluded that two fourth class midshipmen were “participating in a sophomoric game, commonly known as ‘the circle game,’” with West Point cadets during the pregame broadcast, the Naval Academy said in a statement.

“We are confident the hand gestures used were not intended to be racist in any way,” Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the academy’s superintendent, 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.”

Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff, said West Point ordered its investigation after reports that the cadets may have been making racist gestures, which “have no place in our Army.”

“The investigation determined there was no racist intent by cadets,” General McConville said in a statement.

Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the West Point superintendent, said the cadets’ actions had been investigated thoroughly.

“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,” he said in the statement. “We are disappointed by the immature behavior of the cadets.”

The objective of the circle game, which is often played by children and teenagers, is for one person to get another to look into the circle formed by the thumb and forefinger. In some versions of the game, the person who looks into the circle can be punched in the arm.

A partly redacted copy of the Naval Academy’s preliminary inquiry found that the game was commonly played at the academy and in other military and civilian settings.

The inquiry pointed to a text message sent by the roommate of one of the midshipmen when he saw the sign on TV. “Got em,” the text read, which the roommate said was a reference to the midshipman’s habit of saying “got you” after tricking him into looking.

But the seemingly innocent gesture has taken on much darker meaning in recent years.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, reported last year that white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Klansmen “have increasingly begun using the use of the symbol both to signal their presence to the like-minded, as well as to identify potentially sympathetic recruits among young trolling artists flashing it.”

The Anti-Defamation League described the symbol as a hate sign, forming the letters “WP” for “white power.” Last year Coast Guard officials reprimanded a service member who had flashed a similar gesture in the background of a television interview on MSNBC.

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

“To be clear, the Navy does not tolerate racism in any form,” he said in the Naval Academy statement. “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.”

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