Philadelphia, PA – The service-academy students from Annapolis and West Point who were accused of flashing “white power” hand signs on live television during the 120th annual Army-Navy football game were actually playing the “circle game,” the academies announced on Friday.
Annapolis midshipmen and West Point cadets were both seen displaying the gesture during live broadcast on Dec. 14, sparking outrage from those who have deemed the sign to be a symbol of “white power,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
West Point and Annapolis officials immediately launched internal investigations into the incident.
At least 32 personnel were interviewed during the Naval Academy investigation, according to a Dec. 19 report to the U.S. Naval Academy superintendent.
“Both midshipmen state that they were playing the circle game back and forth with cadets throughout Gameday,” the report read. “The gesture they made is consistent with the gesture made for the circle game. After the midshipmen made the gesture, several cadets from West Point can be seen making the same gesture.”
Text messages also showed that one of the midshipmen texted “Got em” to another midshipmen after he saw the gesture on the television screen.
“Multiple individuals stated that the circle game is commonly played at the Naval Academy and in other military and civilian settings,” the investigator explained in the report. “Additionally, when viewed in context with the other behavior displayed by both midshipmen and cadets during Gameday, it is reasonable to believe the midshipmen were playing the circle game.”
According to the report, the midshipmen “exhibited genuine shock and surprise by the situation and credibly stated that they were previously unaware of the racist connotation that was recently associated with the gesture.”
Their peers and superior officers “unanimously stated” that they have never heard the involved shipman make any “racial or derogatory comment,” nor had they ever “seen or heard about any concerning behavior” regarding them, according to the report.
The investigator concluded that the “midshipmen were playing the circle game without any racist or white supremacist intent,” and recommended that their “failure to use good judgement” be addressed through the Brigade conduct system.
“Although there is no evidence that either midshipman was intending to supporting ‘white power’ or were aware that the gesture could be interpreted as supporting white power, the hand gestures displayed while in uniform during a live national television broadcast were unprofessional and not in keeping with the standards required of all midshipmen,” the report read.
U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Superintendent S.S. Buck concurred with the investigator’s findings, and announced that all midshipmen will be required to attend conduct training in January.
“The training will cover, at a minimum, proper military decorum, standards of conduct, and uniform regulations,” the superintendent wrote. “Regardless of intent, their conduct was immature and unprofessional. We expect better from our midshipmen.”
Likewise, the West Point investigator determined that the three cadets who made the hand gesture were also playing the “circle game,” according to a Dec. 19 memorandum to West Point Superintendent Lieutenant General Darryl Williams.
“Sworn statements from these three cadets, surrounding cadets who participated in the broadcast, the cadets’ tactical officers, and their cadet chain of command all state that they believe that the gestures were a misplaced joke and not done in support of promoting white supremacist ideology or any other extremist organizations or groups,” the report read.
Evidence also indicated that the game “is a widespread activity” that has been played in a variety of settings for decades, according to the report.
The myth that the okay sign actually means "white power" was started by internet trolls on 4chan, an anonymous message board, in February of 2017, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) previously said.
“We must flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” the anonymous poster wrote, according to the civil rights organization. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s--t.”
Users encouraged people to perpetuate the hoax using hashtags such as #PowerHandPrivilege and #NotOkay, created fake social media and email accounts, and bombarded journalists and civil rights organizations with the misinformation.
The ok sign is also part of a viral trend known as the "circle game," where the goal is to make somebody look at your hand while making the OK sign below waist level.
The game is ingrained into military culture.
But in 2019, the ADL said that the hand gesture “was being used in some circles as a sincere expression of white supremacy.”
The ADL added the “okay” hand gesture and 35 other images and slogans to its list of hate symbols in September.
“Even as extremists continue to use symbols that may be years or decades old, they regularly create new symbols, memes and slogans to express their hateful sentiments,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a press release at the time.
"These are the latest calling cards of hate," ADL Center on Extremism Senior Fellow Mark Pitcavage said in the press release. "We pay special attention to those symbols that exhibit staying power as well as those that move from online usage into the real world."