The West Point cadets and Naval Academy midshipmen flashing “okay” hand signs during the Army-Navy game did not mean to convey a “white power” message, the two service academies announced Friday.
The investigations by each service academy came after cadets flashed the hand sign on-camera during the storied annual football game last week, prompting outcry from those who saw a racist message from America’s preeminent officers-in-training.
But the hand sign has only recently come to convey, in some cases, that one identifies with the white power movement. For years before that, it was used in a common game: Make someone spot the sign below your waist, and you can punch them in the arm.
According to investigators at the two academies, that was the context in which the cadets used it on Saturday.
“The investigation – which included review of video footage, more than two dozen interviews, and background checks by Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation – determined that two Fourth Class Midshipmen (freshmen) were participating in a sophomoric game, commonly known as ‘the circle game,’ with West Point Cadets during the live broadcast,” a statement from the Naval Academy read. “The investigation found no evidence of racist intent.”
Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, the superintendent of the Military Academy, concurred.
“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 a statement. “We are disappointed by the immature behavior of the cadets.”
The association between the “okay” sign and racists online began with 4chan users who sought to troll “normies” and muddy the waters about the meaning of the gesture. It began ironically, but soon took on the meaning in earnest as white nationalists began using it publicly.
“The overwhelming usage of the ‘okay’ hand gesture today is still its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval,” the Anti-Defamation League said of the symbol earlier this year. “As a result, someone who uses the symbol cannot be assumed to be using the symbol in either a trolling or, especially, white supremacist context unless other contextual evidence exists to support the contention.”
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