What's in a Hand Symbol? Outrage and Controversy at the Army-Navy Game

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U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen run onto Lincoln Financial Field prior to the Army-Navy football game, Dec. 14, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pa. (U.S. Army photo/Erik Estrada)
U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen run onto Lincoln Financial Field prior to the Army-Navy football game, Dec. 14, 2019, in Philadelphia, Pa. (U.S. Army photo/Erik Estrada)

In what has become an annual tradition in our family, my spouse and I joined friends on Saturday for an afternoon of food, fun, and football: the Army-Navy game. The rivalry is good-spirited, and the football has, as of late, made for some memorable moments. Despite being an Army family with deep connections to West Point, our son-in-law is a graduate of the Naval Academy, so the game presents a great opportunity to gather and celebrate. What I didn't expect to come from the game was controversy, yet that's exactly where we find ourselves today.

It's not unusual to see a certain level of "buffoonery" in the stands during a sporting event, and the Army-Navy game is no different than any other. Cadets and midshipmen are notoriously fanatical about their respective teams, but still manage to find the time and opportunity to remind viewers that they are still college students capable of making the same questionable decisions as their peers at other institutions. Saturday's game was no exception.

With cameras rolling, the pre-game broadcast caught members of both academies displaying hand symbols that, depending on your perspective, could be interpreted as either the "okay" sign, the "circle game," or a symbol representing white supremacy. I watched their antics with what bordered on a Red Foreman-ish level of annoyance -- someone pointing a camera at you does not have to be an invitation to act like you're twelve years old. I recognized what they were doing, having been the victim of the circle game -- "Hey, is this yours?" -- more times than I can count.

But not everyone sees the same thing. A good number of people immediately interpreted it as a "white power" symbol -- the result of the 2017 4chan hoax that was so effective it took on a life of its own, evolving from a hoax to "troll the libs" into a widely-used hand gesture among white supremacists. As a result, the Anti-Defamation League warns people to use particular caution when displaying or interpreting the symbol. That's good advice that is typically ignored when it matters most.

The controversy that erupted was widely reported upon by the press and exploded across social media. By early Sunday morning, there were calls for immediate expulsion of the offending parties, with others raising the stakes to closure of the academies. At worst, these young men were white supremacists who had infiltrated America's premiere military institutions and should be expelled without delay; at best, they were poor exemplars of the values of those institutions and should be expelled without delay. They were quickly decried as racists, fascists, and Nazis. There really wasn't a lot of middle ground. On issues of outrage, the mob mentality rules, and the offending cadets and mids were tried and convicted by the court of public opinion in due course. Trying to inject any semblance of reason into the debate was like taking a midnight swim in the La Brea tar pits -- once you're in, good luck getting out.

This is the very reason why the Anti-Defamation League urges caution. The symbol itself has multiple meanings, spanning American sign language to Hinduism and Buddhism. So many meanings, in fact, that it's necessary to establish context and intent in the course of interpretation. If I see a group of "proud boys" flashing the symbol in a group photo, interpreting the meaning isn't exactly complicated. In the same vein, when I see a politician flashing the symbol at the podium, it's usually safe to say that their meaning is relatively clear.

But such clarity can be elusive at times, and a rush to judgment should be avoided. While there is always a possibility that the cadets and midshipmen involved were flashing "white power" signs before the game, it's far more likely that they were playing a stupid game without considering how easily their actions could be misinterpreted, compounded by the fact they were broadcast to a national audience. Regardless, both institutions will investigate the incidents thoroughly, gathering facts and determining an appropriate course of action. While that might not satisfy the mob's outrage, it's the right thing to do. We can save the tar and feathers for another day.

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center's Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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