The Army football program removed a slogan from merchandise and a team flag earlier this year after administrators were told that the phrase originated with white supremacist gangs.
For the past several years, the Black Knights have taken the field for each game flying a pair of banners: the American flag and a black skull-and-crossbones flag with four letters inscribed on what would be the upper lip of the skull: GFBD. The acronym is shorthand for "God Forgives, Brothers Don't" and has been part of the football program's lexicon since the mid-1990s.
West Point officials and members of the athletic department said they were unaware that the phrase links to motorcycle gangs and Aryan Brotherhood sects until that connection was brought to their attention in September.
Athletic director Mike Buddie said head football coach Jeff Monken addressed the team in September after learning about the phrase's roots and told them it would immediately be removed from the program. According to Buddie, Monken was "mortified" and planned to use the instance as a "teaching moment" for his players.
"It's embarrassing, quite frankly," said Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy. "... We take stuff like this very, very seriously. Once I found out about this goofiness, I asked one of our most senior colonels to investigate."
After a two-month investigation, military officials said they determined that the motto was used without knowing its origin, and therefore its use by the team was "benign" and had nothing to do "with the views or beliefs of white supremacist groups or any other disreputable organizations with which they might also be associated," according to an executive summary of the investigation's final report.
An expert on far-right hate groups from the Anti-Defamation League said the GFBD phrase -- an omerta used to discourage snitching -- likely started among outlaw biker gangs and was at some point adopted by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Mark Pitcavage, who earned a doctoral degree in American military history before studying far-right extremism as part of his role with the Anti-Defamation League, said he was not aware of the phrase being used by any military groups in the past or having roots elsewhere.
The skull-and-crossbones imagery was first used by Army football players to symbolize "toughness, tenacity, camaraderie and accountability" in the early 1990s and appeared on T-shirts before it was put on the team flag, according to investigators. The GFBD phrase wasn't made part of that symbolism by football players until 1996, according to Buddie.
A group of players adopted the phrase after seeing it in the action movie "Stone Cold," starring former NFL linebacker Brian Bosworth.
In the film, Bosworth plays a police officer who goes undercover to join a Mississippi biker gang called "The Brotherhood." The fictitious gang prominently displays Confederate and Nazi flags in its clubhouse throughout the movie, and members wear jackets that feature a burning cross and SS lightning bolts. Bosworth's love interest in the movie has a "GFBD" tattoo, and another member of the gang says "God Forgives, Brothers Don't" during a climactic fight scene.
Buddie said West Point's investigators spoke to the former cadet who initiated the use of the phrase in the football program, and he told them he did not know of its connection to any white supremacist groups. West Point officials declined to share the name of the former cadet and said it would be redacted in publicly accessible versions of the investigation report.
Officials declined to share the name of the colonel who conducted the investigation or make him available for an interview. They also declined requests to speak to Monken and other current members of the football program.
Monken, who has been the Black Knights' coach since the 2014 season, told ESPN in August -- before he or any other members of the athletic department say they were aware of the phrase's origin -- that someone on his staff discovered the GFBD flag in an equipment room shortly after their arrival.
The flag had not been used by recent teams, but Monken decided to bring it back to try to inspire camaraderie among his players.
An upperclassman on the team told ESPN in August that the flag had come to represent the team's mentality in everything they do.
"That's become our symbol," he said. "I don't know if you can see it, but it says 'GFBD' over the teeth: God Forgives, Brothers Don't. That's just something we always say, and that's become part of us."
Neither the player nor the interviewer was aware of the motto's white supremacy origins at the time. ESPN is choosing not to use his name because West Point officials have declined to make him or any other players available for follow-up questions.
When ESPN first asked to learn more about the history of the skull and crossbones -- before discovering the "God Forgives, Brothers Don't" origin -- multiple spokespeople in the athletic department discouraged the inclusion of any mention of the GFBD phrase. One spokesman said he would "sincerely appreciate leaving that out of the story because it is an internal thing." Another athletic department official said in September that he had not heard Monken or any of the team members use the GFBD phrase before.
The phrase appeared on several official social media accounts for the team and its staff, on merchandise and on the flag the team carried to the field and displayed in its main meeting room. It was engraved on the inside of rings given to the team for winning the Armed Forces Bowl.
When asked why ESPN was discouraged from using the phrase if no one at West Point was aware of its problematic origins, an academy spokesman said the athletic department officials were concerned that any motto that uses the word "God" might be misinterpreted as the military espousing religion and might create problems for an institution that works hard to keep matters of church and state separate.
Since dropping the slogan, the academy has updated the process it uses to vet and approve publicly accessible mottos or phrases used by teams and clubs at West Point.
According to the executive summary of its investigation, the academy is considering creating a replacement motto for a "new era" of Army football.