According to the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the slogan and its abbreviation are popular among members of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a major 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.
“It’s embarrassing, quite frankly,” Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, told ESPN, which first reported the story on Thursday. “ … 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.”
In an emailed statement, a U.S. Military 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 statement said. “The academy immediately discontinued using it upon notification of its tie to hate groups.”
A two-month probe concluded that the phrase’s use by the Black Knights was “benign,” per ESPN, and that the former cadet who first introduced it to the football program said he was unaware of its link to white supremacist groups.
“GFBD” reportedly began to be used by Army players after some of them watched a 1991 movie, “Stone Cold,” which stars former NFL player Brian Bosworth as a law enforcement agent who goes undercover to infiltrate a biker gang called The Brotherhood. “God forgives, The Brotherhood doesn’t,” is uttered in the film by the gang leader, and “GFBD” is tattooed on a love interest of Bosworth’s character.
The letters from “GFBD” began to be placed where the upper lip would be on a skull-and-crossbones image used by the Black Knights as a rally symbol, and while a flag featuring the symbol eventually fell into disuse, it was revived by Army Coach Jeff Monken when he joined the program in 2014.
“We live by the meaning behind that black flag — the never-say-die attitude; the kill or be killed mentality,” Army linebacker Cole Christiansen said last year (via the Baltimore Sun). “Coach Monken instilled that in us and we take pride in being tougher and more physical than our opponents.”
Army Athletic Director Mike Buddie told ESPN that Monken was “mortified” when he learned of the phrase’s origins, and the coach informed his team in September that “GFBD” would no longer be used.
“The U.S. Military Academy is fully committed to developing leaders of character who embody the Army values. Ideology, actions, and associations of hate groups directly conflict with our values and have no place at this institution,” Williams, the academy superintendent, said in a statement. “We took this very seriously. After a prompt and thorough investigation, the academy is fully confident that the football team’s use of the phrase was in no way related to a radical hate group or any similar groups. However, we are taking all necessary steps to ensure our team will not be associated with such an organization in the future.”
In August, Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo issued an apology while announcing that his team would be discontinuing a phrase, “Load the clip,” which it briefly intended to be its motto for the 2019 season. The reversal came after an inquiry about the slogan from the Capital Gazette, an Annapolis newspaper whose headquarters became the site of a mass shooting in 2018 that left five employees dead.
“We understand that it probably wasn’t appropriate,” Niumatalolo said at the time, “considering the current climate and certain things that are happening in our society.”