West Virginia Gov. calls girls basketball team ‘a bunch of thugs’ after incident, sparking backlash

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, the coach at Greenbrier East High, called the Woodrow Wilson High School team “a bunch of thugs” after an incident in their game on Tuesday night. (AP)

When he’s not running the state, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is leading the Greenbrier East High girls basketball team — a post he’s held since 2003.

Yet after an incident between the Spartans and rival Woodrow Wilson High School on Tuesday night, in which the game was suspended, Justice called the Wilson players “a bunch of thugs.”

Naturally, his comments have sparked immense backlash in the days that followed.

“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, they’re a bunch of thugs,” Justice said, via the Beckley Register-Herald. “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.”

Minutes into the fourth quarter of “an already physical and chippy game,” Woodrow assistant coach Gene Nabors and a fan got into a scuffle behind the bench, per the Register-Herald. After players became involved and entered the stands, Woodrow head coach Brian Nabors pulled his team from the floor and the game was suspended.

Gene, Brian’s brother, was later cited by police for obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor in West Virginia, according to the Washington Post.

Many have since taken offense to Justice’s use of the word “thug,” especially given the racial makeup of the two schools in the southern part of West Virginia. Greenbrier East, per the Washington Post, is 89 percent white and five percent black while Wilson is 72 percent white and 19 percent black.

“The talk around town is just how terrible it was that the governor said what he said,” Gene’s attorney Randolph McGraw told the Washington Post. “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 kinds of things.

“Thugs, that’s the modern day term for the n-word, at least around here it is.”

However Justice — who was elected to office in 2016 — insisted in a statement that his use of the word “thug” was not meant in a racist way despite that term having clear negative racial connotations.

“It would be a stretch, beyond belief, for someone to try to make something racial out of this,” Justice said, via the Register-Herald. “At the end of the day, you’ve got an out of control basketball team, white and black kids … My comment about them being thugs — white, black, whatever the situation may be — people that are behaving this way are bad for school athletics. To twist this around into a black-white issue would be preposterous beyond belief.”

The incident is similar to one that happened in the NBA this season. Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein found himself in hot water after calling his players “thugs” during a film session last month. Beilein, who is still Cleveland’s coach, said he meant to use the word “slugs’ instead, and didn’t realize he slipped up. After realizing what he’d done, Beilein reached out to every member of the team to apologize and clear the air.

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