Updated Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020 at 4:15 p.m.
Gov. Jim Justice is defending his use of the word “thugs” to describe players and coaches of a high school girls basketball team. The governor — who coaches the girls team at Greenbrier East High School — used the phrase to describe the behavior of an opposing team and their coaches during a Tuesday night game. With lawmakers in session, Justice’s words were also the topic of conversation Wednesday on the House of Delegates floor.
In a post-game interview with the Beckley Register-Herald, Justice called players and coaches from Woodrow Wilson High School “a bunch of thugs.”
Those comments followed a game — which was held at Greenbrier East in Fairlea — that’s been described as “physical” on the court. Additionally, an assistant coach from Woodrow Wilson reportedly got into an altercation with a fan.
Woodrow Wilson has one of the most racially diverse populations in the state. Many players and coaches on that school’s girl team are black.
In a news release issued Wednesday, Justice defended his use of the word “thugs.”
"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.”
Justice also noted that the Woodrow Wilson assistant coach was cited by the West Virginia State Police for obstructing an officer.
“I am certain that the [West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission] will deal with this in a professional and appropriate matter,” he said.
This incident isn’t the first time Justice has received criticism over his choice of words. In 2018, he used the phrase “Chinaman’s chance” to describe a piece of legislation’s possibility of survival. He’s also compared himself favorably to Kunta Kinte, an African slave in the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
Justice’s comments drew mixed reactions Wednesday on the floor of the House of Delegates. Some lawmakers condemned his actions while others were more reserved in their positions.
Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, took aim at the governor not only for the controversial remarks but also argued that Justice gives coaching priority over his duties as the state’s chief executive.
“It's clear that Jim justice is an embarrassment on and off the court,” Fluharty said, noting Justice’s use of the phrase “Chinaman’s chance.”
He said West Virginia has been “plagued” by stereotypes depicting citizens as bigoted and racist.
“I take offense, when, the governor of our state refuses to acknowledge, refuses to simply say, ‘I'm sorry’ when he makes statements like he did last night,” Fluharty said. “Because that's what West Virginians do. We own up to our mistakes. But our governor is unwilling to own up to his.”
Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, agreed that Justice should be more engaged in his duties as governor, but said accusations of racism should be reserved.
“The governor does obviously 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 making, jumping to conclusions or possibly making logical fallacies,” McGeehan said. “We're throwing around the term racism too much. Because when we do that, and we jump to those conclusions, and we level the term ‘racism’ at our political opponents -- especially, someone who might be an easy target.”
Del. Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, called on Justice to apologize and asked lawmakers to forgive the governor for his choice of words.
“I hope the governor apologizes publicly. I hope the governor apologizes privately to those whom he has he has offended and I hope from the bottom of my heart that they find it in their hearts to forgive as we have been forgiven,” Pack said.