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Gov. Justice’s comment draws reaction

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers in the House of Delegates both criticized and defended Gov. Jim Justice after news reports show the governor and girls high school basketball coach calling the opposing team “thugs” during an interview.

The Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team, coached by Justice, played the Woodrow Wilson High School girls basketball team Tuesday night in Greenbrier County.

According to the Beckley Register-Herald, Woodrow Wilson’s assistant coach got into an alleged altercation with a fan behind the bleachers. The game was suspended after head coach Brian Nabors removed his team from the bench.

The team was cited for numerous fouls against Greenbrier East, which was leading Woodrow Wilson 56-50 with more than 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter. One foul against a Greenbrier East player resulted in both Justice and Nabors being called to the scorer’s table to be reprimanded.

Speaking to reporters after the game ended, Justice called the Woodrow Wilson coaches and players — made up of several black student-athletes — “thugs.”

“I hate to say it any other way, but honest to God’s truth is the same thing happened over at Woodrow two different times out of the Woodrow players,” Justice said to the Register-Herald. “They’re a bunch of thugs. The whole team left the bench, the coach is in a fight, they walked off the floor, they called the game.”

“Thugs” in recent years has come to have a racially-tinged meaning, a derogatory term for minorities. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Justice did not apologize for using the term, but said his use of it was not meant to be racial.

“My definition of a thug is clear — it means violence, bullying, and disorderly conduct. And we, as West Virginians, should have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior,” Justice said. “Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.”

Members of the House of Delegates, speaking at the end of a nearly four-hour-long floor session, addressed Justice’s remarks. Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said the state should be embarrassed by Justice’s use of “thug” to describe high school students.

“It is clear that Governor Jim Justice is an embarrassment on or off the court,” Fluharty said. “Did he apologize? Of course not, he didn’t apologize. He doubled-down on his statement that these children are thugs, as if what he says doesn’t it matter. All that matters is how it matters to Jim; how it is interpreted by Jim, not how it is interpreted by the young girls on that basketball team.”

Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, defended Justice from accusations of racism and bigotry, chalking up Justice’s remarks to being an excited coach.

“He was obviously excited and amped up, maybe a little bit too much, with the reporter,” McGeehan said. “I think the governor does need to show up here more often and do the business he was elected to do, but I want to caution us here in this body from possibly jumping to conclusions or possibly making logical fallacies with throwing around the term racism too much.”

Delegate Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, represents part of the county where Woodrow Wilson is located. Pack said he doesn’t think Justice was being racist, but he did call on Justice to apologize to the students.

“We often say things we don’t mean,” Pack said. “I do hope the governor apologizes publicly. I hope the governor apologizes privately to those whom he offended. I hope from the bottom of my heart that they find it in their hearts to forgive as we have been forgiven.”

Delegate Amanda Estep-Burton, D-Kanawha, said it was right for lawmakers to raise objections to the remarks by Justice.

“To quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter,'” Estep-Burton said. “I do feel we need to call out the governor when he says things like that, especially when he refuses to apologize.”

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