The West Virginia governor is drawing ire for comments he made at his volunteer position as a high school girls’ basketball coach.
Jim Justice, who has been the Greenbrier East High School head coach since 2003 and the governor since 2016, called the opposing team “a bunch of thugs” after an altercation on Tuesday.
Greenbrier East’s game was cut short on Tuesday. The Spartans held a six-point lead over Woodrow Wilson High School when, according to The Washington Post, a Greenbrier East fan appeared to taunt the Wilson bench during a fourth-quarter timeout.
Wilson assistant coach Gene Nabors reportedly asked Wilson’s principal and athletic director to intervene, but the scene escalated, with some Wilson players entering the stands before head coach Brian Nabors pulled them off the court. West Virginia State Police officers, who were on duty to protect Justice, ended up handcuffing Nabors on the ground after he was in a scuffle with the fan. The game was suspended after a long delay. According to Sports Illustrated, five Woodrow Wilson players have been suspended for their role.
Justice made his controversial comments in a postgame interview with the Beckley Register-Herald.
“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. “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.
“The game was over when they walked off the floor – it’s just as simple as that. They don’t know how to behave and at the end of the day, you got what you got.”
Barbara Charles, who leads the Raleigh County NAACP chapter, told the Register-Herald that she considers “thug” to be “street slang.”
“Regardless of how he intended it, you must be a catalyst,” Charles said, calling for a reconciliation meeting between the teams. “You must be the adult in the room. … Everything means something. Something has been said, and you’ve labeled a school.”
The Post reported that Greenbrier East’s student body is 89 percent white and 5 percent black, while Wilson’s is 72 percent white and 19 percent black.
“As a native of Raleigh County, it’s appalling to me that Jim Justice would call students thugs,” Kanawha County Commissioner and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango said. “He set a terrible example last time and embarrassed our state once again. There is no excuse for calling our children thugs. Our kids deserve better, and he owes the Woodrow Wilson High School community an apology.”
Justice said it was “totally absurd” to infer racial intent from his comments.
“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. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.
“To twist this around into a black-white issue would be preposterous, beyond belief.”
The Register-Herald reported that Nabors returned to practice Wednesday in a sling. His attorney, Randolph McGraw, told The Post that the governor’s comments made an impact in the community.
“The talk around town is just how terrible it was that the governor said what he said,” McGraw said. “Woodrow Wilson is coached by two black men and the majority of the girls on the team are black women. People are pretty upset that the governor would say those kind of things.
“When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair. It is a sly way of saying there go those black people ruining things again. And so anybody who wonders whether thug is becoming the new n-word doesn’t need to. It most certainly is.”