Military officials are investigating what appeared to be white nationalist hand gestures made by students ahead of the Army-Navy football game over the weekend.
ESPN aired the pregame festivities Saturday, during which the students — two West Point cadets and one Naval Academy midshipman, flashed the offensive gesture as journalist Rece Davis delivered a sideline report.
In video of the incident, a cadet on the Army’s side holds up a “Go Army Beat Navy” flag moments before a midshipman, whose face is out of the frame, curls his fingers to form an upside down “OK” sign. The gesture, which has been linked to white nationalism, is flashed at least two more time and at least once by an Army cadet not far from Davis’ head in the background of the video frame.
“West Point is looking into it and we do not know the intent of the cadets,” Lt. Col. Christopher Ophardt, director of public affairs, said in a statement.
Cmdr. Alana Garas of the Naval Academy also said: “We’re aware and will be looking into it.”
Backlash was swift, with many condemning the cadets’ behavior as “racist” and “disgraceful.” There were also those, however, who saw the gesture as an innocent joke and argued the controversy had been overblown.
“It’s the damn circle game. Google it, FFS. #NotRacist,” one Twitter user wrote, referring to the childhood game in which a player makes a circle with his/her hand and holds it below their waist, convincing other players to look at it. The “gotcha” moment results in a punch to whoever looks.
“These guys are college students, and this meme has been going around for a while, so they wanted to get the entire nation. There was no harm at all in it,” another chimed in.
“Lmaoo are y’all serious??” another user, identified as an Army serviceman, wrote in response to the furor. “Everybody in the military plays this game.”
“When will they realize it’s a joke. Sheesh!” another opined.
Others took a more neutral stance.
“Before the mobs come out, let’s do some research on the kid,” someone said. “If he’s been on white supremacists sites, blogs and follows them on social media, then yea. Reprimand the kid. BUT, a lot of kids use that sign as the ‘got em’ sign. This would be a great way to get everyone watching.”
Neither branch has identified the students involved, and it’s unclear if they will face any punishments.
Earlier this year, Anti-Defamation League added the “white power” hand sign to its “Hate on Display” database, explaining how the offensive symbol and others came to be. The otherwise innocuous “OK” sign took on a new meaning after members of the alt-right co-opted it and started using it to represent the letters “wp” for “white power.”
The gesture was initially a hoax campaign crafted by users of the website 4Chan to falsely promote the sign as a symbol of hate, according to the civil rights organization. The goal was to “flood Twitter and other social media websites … claiming the ‘OK’ hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” sparking outrage among liberals and the media.
However, the hand gesture has increasingly been adopted by prominent white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, as a genuine expression of white supremacy.
The symbol drew national headlines in May after Chicago Cubs fan was indefinitely banned from Wrigley Field after flashing the same “OK” sign near a Black reporter’s head during a live broadcast. More recently, Universal Orlando Resort fired a worker seen using the sign in a photo with a young guest.
Perhaps the most prominent example of the controversial symbol being displayed came when Republican operative Zina Bash appeared to flash it for an extended period as she sat behind then-federal Judge Brett Kavanaugh during a Sept. 4, 2018, session of his Senate confirmation hearing that ultimately saw him elevated to the Supreme Court.
Watch more in the video below.