SecDef Weighs in on Army-Navy Game Hand Gesture Controversy

Cadets from the United States Military Academy march onto the field before the 2019 Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 14, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Dana Clarke)
Cadets from the United States Military Academy march onto the field before the 2019 Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia, Pa., Dec. 14, 2019. (U.S. Army photo/Dana Clarke)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper has expressed his concerns that white power symbols may have been flashed by cadets and midshipmen at the Army-Navy football game Dec. 14, but is leaving it to the academies -- for now -- to sort out whether discipline is warranted.

However, Esper said all forms of white power, hate and racism have no place in the military, and those who violate the rules could be subject to punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"There is no room whatsoever for anybody to have -- to be -- to be a white nationalist or to be a member of any hate group whatsoever or harbor anything like that," Esper told defense reporters Monday on his way back from ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.

In the transcript of the briefing from the Defense Department, Esper said it was his understanding that "displays were made" by some cadets and midshipmen at the game that might be considered white power gestures.

"I also understand that both academies are investigating these. And we'll see what comes out," said Esper, a 1986 West Point graduate and a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

Screenshots of the gestures in question, a variation of the traditional "OK" sign, went viral on social media.

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

In September, the Anti-Defamation League said in its "Hate on Display" database that the OK gesture, when pointed downward, can be considered a "hate symbol," but added that "caution must be used in evaluating instances of this symbol's use."

However, the downward OK gesture is also used in a kids' game called the "Circle Game," popularized in a 2000 episode of the TV sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."

In a letter Tuesday to Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, three House Democrats said the investigations "must consider the prospect that these actions were intentional and deliberate."

The letter called on Esper and Milley to insure that "those involved will be held appropriately accountable" if the investigations conclude that the hand gestures were made to convey hate.

The letter was signed by Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Maryland, a retired Army colonel, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, both members of the House Armed Services Committee. It was also signed by by Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees.

Over the weekend, Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the West Point superintendent, said he had appointed an officer to conduct a fact-finding investigation under Army regulation 15-6 into the hand gestures.

In a statement, Williams said the academy "is fully committed to developing leaders of character who embody the Army values." The Naval Academy has ordered up a similar investigation.

When he was Army secretary, Esper said, "We screened very closely and diligently the new recruits coming into the service" for any signs of hate and racism.

Those who revealed these sentiments, he said, were subject to the UCMJ.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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