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Military academies probe possible ‘white power’ sign at game

Navy midshipmen salute ahead of an NCAA college football game against Army, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum / Associated Press)
Associated Press

Officials at the Army and Navy academies are investigating whether hand signs flashed by students standing behind a reporter during a TV interview were intended to convey a message of white supremacy.

The incident involved two U.S. Military Academy cadets and one Naval Academy midshipman who were behind ESPN’s Rece Davis as he reported on the sideline before the annual rivalry game Saturday in Philadelphia.

“U.S. Naval Academy officials have appointed a preliminary inquiry officer to conduct an internal investigation into the hand gestures made during the ESPN College GameDay broadcast prior to [Saturday’s] Army-Navy game,” Commander Alana Garas, a spokesman for the Naval Academy, told the Washington Post. “Based on findings of the investigation, those involved will be held appropriately accountable. It would be inappropriate to speculate any further while we are conducting this investigation.” As for the military academy, Lt. Col. Chris Ophardt told The Post that “U.S. Military Academy is looking into the matter. At this time, we do not know the intent of the cadets.”

The gesture, which is open to interpretation, resembles the common one used to indicate “OK,” but with the hand pointing downward to form a W and P for “white power.” In September, it was moved from a trolling gesture to a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, which maintains a database of hate symbols. In doing so, the ADL was careful to note on its website that the gesture has multiple messages.

“The overwhelming usage of the ‘okay’ hand gesture today is still its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval,” the ADL post reads. “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. Since 2017, many people have been falsely accused of being racist or white supremacist for using the ‘okay’ gesture in its traditional and innocuous sense.”

It went on to say, “Because of the traditional meaning of the ‘okay’ hand gesture, as well as other usages unrelated to white supremacy, particular care must be taken not to jump to conclusions about the intent behind someone who has used the gesture.”

Last week, Military academy officials dropped the “GFBD” slogan used by the football team after learning of its association with white supremacist groups. An abbreviation for the phrase, “God forgives, brothers don’t,” it has appeared for several years on a rally flag carried into games by the Black Knights, and it reportedly was featured on some team-related merchandise. A hashtag, #GFBD, has also been used online by supporters of the team.

According to the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the slogan and its abbreviation are popular among members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a white supremacist prison gang. The ADL has also described “GFBD” as a phrase “shared” by such groups with motorcycle gangs and “intended to reinforce group loyalty” or to warn of never “snitching” on fellow members.

In a statement to The Post, an academy spokesperson wrote that a “thorough investigation” showed “that the Army football team began the use of the skull and crossbones flag with the initials in the mid-1990s. The football team continued to use the motto until leaders at the academy were made aware that the phrase is also associated with extremist groups.

“The motto was originally used to emphasize teamwork, loyalty, and toughness. The academy immediately discontinued using it upon notification of its tie to hate groups.”

Last year, the U.S. Coast Guard reprimanded an officer who used a similar hand sign during a live MSNBC broadcast. The officer, with 23 years in uniform, was not identified by the Coast Guard, but received a letter of censure signed by Capt. John Reed, the head of Hurricane Florence response in Charleston, S.C. “While your actions may have seemed funny and playful to you, they clearly showed lack of maturity and inability to understand the gravity of the situation, namely the preparation and response to Hurricane Florence, a declared disaster,” Reed wrote in a letter the Coast Guard provided to Navy Times.

Navy won Saturday’s game, 31-7, behind the play of quarterback Malcolm Perry and snapped Army’s three-game winning streak in the series, which Navy leads 61-52-7.