West Point criticized after cadets wear sombreros at Army football game near Mexico
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: September 22, 2016
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., is under scrutiny by Latino advocacy groups after the school published a photograph showing Army cadets wearing sombreros during a game Saturday near the Mexico border.
The Army football team blew out the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) 66-14 to run its record to 3-0 for the first time in 20 years, and the academy posted a photograph on Facebook that showed cadets cheering in the bleachers. One cadet has a sombrero on his head, and another has one in his hand.
The school should apologize for the image and take it down, said Lisa Navarrete, an official with the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit group in Washington that focuses on immigration and other Latino issues. The use of sombreros to represent Latino people is an "old-school and dated stereotype" that offends many people, Navarrete said.
"I am a huge sports fan, so I understand that trashing your opponents in silly and not-so-silly ways is part of the game," she said. "But I am also old enough to remember when banana peels were thrown at Georgetown University basketball players. Ugly bigotry is still ugly and offensive, even in the context of entertainment."
Asked about the photograph, a spokesman for West Point, Lt. Col. Christopher Kasker, said the academy was "honored" to play UTEP and will leave the image online. He called the school a "community rich with Hispanic heritage" and noted that the game occurred during the Army's observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
"The photo was posted as part of the game's festivities and West Point has no plans to remove the photo," Kasker said. "America's diversity has always been one of the Army's greatest strengths, as people of different backgrounds and cultures share their unique experiences and perspective to benefit all."
The issue is the latest in a series of events dating to last year in which the actions of West Point cadets or staff have been criticized. The school was questioned for posting a video after its upset win Sept. 2 over Temple University in which Coach Jeff Monken is shown directing a member of his staff to lead a prayer. It was later removed, and Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen told The Washington Post a few days later that "valid concerns" about the separation of church and state had been raised.
In that same interview, Caslen said that he is aware some journalists scrutinize social media looking for "things that would not be accepted by the public," and he and cadets understand that.
"If the great American public wants to see what's right in our nation, they want to see that occurring within the military academy," Caslen said. "They see us and the military academy as standing in the gap between the evil that's out there and protecting America. Since we're a public institution paid for with tax dollars . . . they have an expectation that we're going to meet that."
Concerns about West Point's photograph were first reported Tuesday by Fox News Latino after the parent of a cadet raised the issue. It comes at a time when the Army is trying to entice more Hispanics to serve as Army officers. According to Army statistics, 3 percent of the service was Hispanic in 1985 but had increased to 17 percent by fiscal 2015. Nine percent of the 1,290 students admitted in the class of 2020 at West Point fall are Hispanic.
UTEP's student body is 80 percent Hispanic, according to the school's website. The school itself has encouraged the use of sombreros at some sporting events, including "Fiesta Nights," in which fans get in free if they wear one.
Estrella Escobar, the assistant to UTEP President Diana Natalicio, said in a statement issued through a spokesperson that wearing sombreros at UTEP games is "far from an established tradition" but that the school "accepts West Point's explanation of the intent of their students."
The use of sombreros has proven controversial at other universities. Last year, for example, University of Louisville President James Ramsey apologized after images were published of him and other administrators wearing the hats, colorful ponchos and fake facial hair at a Halloween party.
It remains baffling that West Point leaves the photograph online, said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). It crosses a line from making fun of UTEP to ethnic and racial stereotyping, he said.
"Not only did they not stop this from happening, they stuck it up on their Facebook page as though they think it's OK," Wilkes said. "If this is what they think is OK with reaching out to the Latino community, they need a reboot on their diversity strategies on their campus."