West Virginia’s top elected official still spends his winters pacing the sidelines at Greenbrier East High in Lewisburg, coaching the Spartans girls’ basketball team, a volunteer position he has held since 2003. Now some residents are wishing he would watch his mouth while he does it.
Referees suspended a game between the Spartans and rival Woodrow Wilson High on Tuesday night after a disruption behind the Wilson bench in the fourth quarter. The incident ended with Wilson players wading into the stands before one of the team’s coach pulled them off the floor. A Wilson assistant coach, Gene Nabors, was later cited by state police for obstructing an officer, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $500 fine and a year in prison.
The game was suspended with Greenbrier East leading by six points, and Justice later called the Wilson players “a bunch of thugs,” a remark some consider racist.
“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 told 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.”
Justice later said in a statement it was “totally absurd” to infer racial intent in his choice of words, but others criticized his postgame comments. He apologized Friday, saying he “never dreamed” the term thugs “would bother anyone."
“First of all, I would tell them that I’m really sorry if I’ve done anything that has offended them,” the governor told local ABC affiliate WCHS. “But secondly, I would just say this, Barack Obama used that term. Newspapers in our state have used the term. The New York Times uses that term all the time. I didn’t know … I wouldn’t have known in a million years. No way on this planet would I know. If we need to use another term we would say, you know if I could take it back, surely, I would take it back because you know, I never dreamed it would bother anyone.”
That apology, though, did not satisfy members of the Wilson community.
“That’s not good enough,” assistant coach Kevin Henry told The Washington Post. “He should apologize to our team.”
Rockey Powell, Wilson’s principal, criticized Justice in a statement on Saturday without mentioning the governor by name.
“Immediately following the game and in the days thereafter, Woodrow Wilson High School students have been subjected to unfortunate and inappropriate remarks by the coach of the Greenbrier East High School girls’ basketball team,” Powell’s statement read, in part. “The remarks show complete lack of respect for our students and coaches. We are proud of how our players and coaches have conducted themselves in the last few days throughout these unfortunate circumstances.”
Barbara Charles, who leads the Raleigh County NAACP chapter, told the Register-Herald that she considered the word “thug” to be “street slang,” adding that “regardless of how he intended it, you must be the catalyst. You must be the adult in the room.”
“Everything means something,” she told the paper. “Something has been said, and you’ve labeled a school."
Charles called for a meeting between the teams to reconcile the situation.
Tensions between the teams, both ranked among the top 10 in the state by MaxPreps, were already high after a chippy matchup earlier in the season. In the January meeting at Wilson, Greenbrier East supporters voiced chants that Wilson coaches felt had racial overtones. Fans referred to Wilson as “Woodrow Hoodrow,” Henry said, and sang the alphabet as Wilson players attempted free throws, which Wilson coaches interpreted as casting doubt on their players’ literacy.
In a packed gymnasium Tuesday night — on a court named after Justice — tempers boiled over.
Steven Damon, a parent of a Greenbrier East player, appeared to taunt the Wilson bench during a timeout in the fourth quarter, and Gene Nabors — the brother of Wilson Coach Brian Nabors — then approached Wilson’s principal and athletic director, asking them to intervene, according to his attorney and photos and video obtained by The Post.
The situation quickly escalated, ultimately leading West Virginia State Police officers, on duty to protect Justice, to walk across the court and confront Gene Nabors as he walked away. Nabors wound up handcuffed on the ground.
“He kind of nudged Gene, and words were exchanged and things escalated behind our bench,” Henry said. “Gene’s son came down from the stands, and Gene tried to say, ‘It’s all right,’ and when Gene turned around, the state trooper pushed him to the ground and arrested him. I’d never seen anything like that.”
Henry pulled his team off the floor in an abundance of caution, he said, which led Justice to lobby officials to declare the game a forfeit, according to the Register-Herald. Over the Presidents Day weekend, state athletic officials declared Greenbrier East the winner. Wilson won the teams’ earlier meeting in January.
The teams could meet again in the coming sectional playoff tournament. Wilson administrators have asked state officials to play that game at a neutral site in Bluefield, about 70 miles southwest of Lewisburg.
Gene Nabors declined to comment through his attorney, Randolph McGraw. He returned to basketball practice Wednesday with a sling on his left arm, according to the Register-Herald, and still had it during a Thursday game. West Virginia State Police said in a statement the investigation was “ongoing.” Nabors suffered a fractured bone in his hand, Henry told The Post on Friday.
On Thursday, five Wilson players were suspended two games each for leaving the bench area during the altercation. West Virginia State Police also cited Donte Nabors, Gene Nabors’s son, for disorderly conduct and obstructing an officer and Damon for disorderly conduct.
Some residents around the state remained uneasy with Justice’s description of the Wilson team. Greenbrier East’s student body is 89 percent white and 5 percent black, according to enrollment data; Wilson, located in nearby Beckley, has a student body that is 72 percent white and 19 percent black. Both schools are located in the southern part of the state.
“The talk around town is just how terrible it was that the governor said what he said,” McGraw, the attorney, told The Post in a phone interview. Two of his children graduated from Wilson. “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.
“Thugs, that’s a modern day term for the n-word. At least around here it is,” McGraw added.
John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said in a 2015 NPR interview that thug “is a nominally polite way of using the n-word.”
“When somebody talks about thugs ruining a place, it is almost impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair,” he said. “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’s most certainly is.”
Asked whether Justice’s words appeared racially motivated, Henry said: “In a cultural sense, yes, I thought so. But is Jim Justice a racist? I don’t know. I know it was the heat of the moment. But what really hurt was that he didn’t apologize [immediately]. He doubled down. It’s 2020. It’s sad. I’ve been in tears for the past couple days. I think he knows better.”
The incident appeared to divide West Virginians. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) contacted Wilson coaches to offer support, Henry said, as have other local politicians. Nabors’s attorney, meanwhile, received a number of menacing phone messages using racial slurs at his law office.
Justice, himself a graduate of Wilson High, has said repeatedly his choice of words had no racist intent.
“My definition of a thug is clear — it means violence, bullying, and disorderly conduct,” he said in a statement before issuing his apology. “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.”
Justice told the Register-Herald that “to twist this around into a black-white issue would be preposterous, beyond belief.” Justice’s office did not respond to interview requests.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Justice placed his business holdings in a blind trust upon taking office. He did place some of his assets in a blind trust, but passed control of some of them, including The Greenbrier resort, to his children instead.