Investigators at the U.S. Naval and Military academies said cadets and midshipmen who flashed hand gestures at a recent football game were playing “the circle game,” not trying to convey a message of white supremacy.
The incident, which gained national attention, involved three Military Academy cadets and two Naval Academy midshipmen. They made the “OK” sign with their fingers while standing behind an ESPN reporter before the annual Army-Navy football game Dec. 14.
An investigating officer at the Military Academy reported the men “were playing the ‘circle game,’ an internationally recognized game in which people attempt to trick someone else into looking at an okay-like hand gesture below the waist.”
The cadets denied the gesture was meant to invoke white supremacy.
Officials gathered sworn statements from the cadets involved, other cadets who participated in the ESPN broadcast, the cadet’s tactical officers and their cadet chain of command. They all said the hand gestures were a “misplaced joke,” a statement from the Military Academy said.
“We investigated this matter thoroughly,” said Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the academy’s superintendent. “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. We are disappointed by the immature behavior of the cadets.”
Officials at the Naval Academy announced the findings of their investigation Friday afternoon. Investigators analyzed video footage, conducted more than two dozen interviews and reviewed background checks, according to a statement.
Vice Adm. Sean Buck, the Naval Academy’s superintendent, expressed disappointment in the midshipmen’s decision to flash the symbol and said “their actions will be appropriately addressed.”
Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, shared similar thoughts.
“As a Navy, we expect our sailors to conduct themselves with integrity and character at all times, and that is why we completed an immediate investigation following this incident,” Gilday said. “To be clear, the Navy does not tolerate racism in any form. 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 “OK” hand gesture dates to 17th-century Britain, but took on new meaning in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. A hoax promoted by users on 4chan, a controversial online forum, claimed the hand gesture represented the letters “wp,” which stand for “white power.”
“The hoax was so successful the symbol became a popular trolling tactic on the part of right-leaning individuals, who would often post photos to social media of themselves posing while making the ‘okay’ gesture,” according to the ADL website.
White supremacist Brenton Tarrant made the symbol during a courtroom appearance after he was arrested for allegedly murdering 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.