Two Naval Academy midshipmen who made a hand gesture associated with white nationalists while standing in the background of a TV segment during the annual Army-Navy football game were playing a “sophomoric game” and were not flashing racist gestures, according to a Navy probe into the incident released Friday.
The mids made the hand sign while standing in the background during an ESPN broadcast segment during the Dec. 14 game.
The involved students — whose names are redacted in the copy of the report released by the Academy — told investigators they were playing “the circle game,” where one person makes the “OK” hand symbol.
“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.
Once purely innocuous, the “OK” gesture in recent years became the target of an internet hoax that claimed it telegraphed “white power,” the investigator wrote.
“In light of this hoax, several prominent members of ‘white power’ and ‘white supremacy’ groups began making the gesture in public, thereby appropriating the gesture as a symbol of their movements,” the investigation states.
Also during the “Gameday evolution,” midshipmen and West Point cadets traded words and threw items at each other, according to the report.
“This type of behavior has been observed at previous editions of the Army-Navy Gameday evolution,” the report states.
The midshipmen involved told the investigator they’d been playing the circle game with cadets throughout the day, and several cadets were seen making the gesture back to them, according to the investigator.
“Multiple individuals stated that the circle game is commonly played at the Naval Academy and in other military and civilian settings,” the report states. “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.”
The midshipmen who flashed the gesture “exhibited genuine shock and surprise by the entire situation and credibly stated that they were previously unaware of the racist connotation that was recently associated with the gesture,” the report states.
“Their denials are supported by the statements of their friends, roommates, members of their chain of command and team captains who unanimously stated that they had never heard any of the midshipmen involved make a racial or derogatory comment and have never seen or heard about any concerning behavior,” according to the report.
The investigator recommended no further action on the matter but wrote that ESPN events should be treated as their own “evolutions” and that midshipmen appearing on camera should get briefed on what is appropriate.
“There is no evidence that either midshipman intended to convey any type of message through the hand gesture,” the report states. “The evidence indicates they intended to play a sophomoric game.”
“We are confident the hand gestures used were not intended to be racist in any way,” Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck said in a prepared statement. “However, we are disappointed by the immature behavior of the two Fourth Class Midshipmen, and their actions will be appropriately addressed.”
Also in the statement, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday — Naval Academy Class of 1985 — said he expected sailors "to conduct themselves with integrity and character at all times, and that is why we completed an immediate investigation following this incident.
“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. We must be standard-bearers. We must be above reproach. That is what sets us apart as a fighting force.”
The Coast Guard earlier this year formally reprimanded a service member who flashed the gesture during a live TV interview.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.