West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice talks to the Greenbrier East girls basketball team during Tuesday’s game against Woodrow Wilson at Greenbrier East High School on Tuesday. The game was suspended in the fourth quarter after an incident involving Woodrow Wilson assistant coach Gene Nabors and a fan. Later, Justice called Woodrow “a bunch of thugs.” (Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

Gov. Jim Justice, who has a long history of supporting youth athletics in southern West Virginia, has come under fire around the state for a derogatory comment he made Tuesday night when the Woodrow Wilson High School girls basketball team visited Greenbrier East and the game turned physical on and off the court and was suspended.

The local branch of the NAACP is asking for a meeting, legislators are calling for an apology from the governor and two separate school districts are investigating as is the West Virginia State Police.

And it is not the first but only the latest troubling prep sports incident that has made news headlines in the past several weeks.

After a Woodrow assistant coach and a father of one of the East players got into a verbal confrontation near the stands behind the Woodrow bench and after the Flying Eagles’ head coach pulled his team off the court for safety’s sake, Justice made the comments to a reporter for The Register-Herald.

“They’re a bunch of thugs,” Justice said. “The whole team left the bench, the coach is in a fight, they walked off the floor, they called the game.”

The Woodrow Wilson High School girls’ basketball team has a number of black players in addition to its two coaches, while the Greenbrier East team has no black players but one of its assistant coaches is black. 

Some interpret the word “thug” to be street slang aimed at black Americans. 

Justice told The Register-Herald on Tuesday night that he wanted to set the record straight on his intended use of the word.

“It would be a stretch, beyond belief, for someone to try to make something racial out of this,” the governor said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got an out-of-control basketball team, white and black kids.

“You had a situation where a white girl at Woodrow ... rushed one of our kids, and the head coach at Woodrow jumped out and grabbed her, ‘cause she was rushing to hit our kids.

 “It was a white girl,” said Justice. “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.”

 Justice doubled down in a Wednesday press release.

 “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.”

 The West Virginia Secondary Schools Activities Commission (WVSSAC) and the West Virginia State Police are currently investigating the incident. State Police Captain S.R. Oglesby was not immediately available for comment on Tuesday morning.

NAACP calls for meeting

 The president of the Raleigh County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has asked Gov. Jim Justice to call a meeting between two rival girls’ high school basketball teams.

Barbara Charles said Justice could speak for himself regarding his intended meaning of the word. She wanted to talk about those most impacted by the events: the young people who play for both teams.

Regardless of Justice’s intentions, she said, his use of the word has planted a seed among youth in the state. She said school officials and the governor should be taking immediate steps to help the kids heal.

Charles characterized the word “thug” as “street slang” and said it is inappropriate for a governor or any person in a position of authority to use when dealing with children. She turned the focus from how the governor intended the word to how the young people may have perceived his use of the word. She said it is now up to the governor to speak to the kids and to listen to them, in return.

“Everything means something,” she said. “Something has been said, and you’ve labeled a school.  

“I would tell the governor, regardless of how he intended it, you must be the catalyst. You must be the adult in the room.

 “For the sake of the children and our community, it’s on the governor to do it,” she said. “The healing comes to the children from the adults.

 “What are you going to do to bring healing to the hurt that, surely, both sides had to feel?”

 She asked Justice to use his position to promote healing for both teams and schools. 

 “Let’s show love for each other,” said Charles.”These are children. These are not adults. These are children.”

Record of supporting youth

Justice, a coal tycoon and former high school athlete, has a long track record of supporting youth, particularly student athletes.

Greenbrier County Schools Superintendent Jeff Bryant was principal at Greenbrier East for a number of years. He worked with Justice. On Wednesday, he pointed to Justice’s support of male and female athletics at Greenbrier East and the number of scholarships Justice has provided to black and white athletes over the years . He said evidence of Justice’s track record of supporting West Virginia youth shows that Justice cares about the state’s young people.

When asked if he believed Justice’s use of the word “thug” was appropriate, Bryant said he would allow Justice to speak for himself as coach and governor.

“I will state, in the law of tenure, Mr. Justice has served as a coach for Greenbrier East,” said Bryant. “I have never encountered him, in any way, shape or form, of showing any racial preference, bias or unfairness of any athlete, student or adult, regardless of color or creed.

“I’ve never heard him saying anything adverse about a school or community.

“I’ve always found him to be embracing of young people,” he added. “I know he’s reached out and taken care of many young people, through his resources, providing scholarships and whatever they need, in times of need, and I’ve never seen him exhibit any type of racial tendencies.”

Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold said that neither Head Coach Brian Nabors nor Justice have a history of showing racism.

“I have known both the governor and (Nabors) and parents for decades, and there is not a racist bone in any of these gentlemen,” said Rappold. “Just look at each’s history.

“The basketball game was heated, and youngsters got caught up in a competitive situation and reacted improperly — something they will live to regret.” 

Beckley Common Council At-large representative Sherrie Hunter on Tuesday acknowledged the high emotions that the game had sparked but said use of the word “thug” was inappropriate.

“There’s an incredible rivalry between Woodrow Wilson and Greenbrier East,” said Hunter. “There always had been.

“However, even taking that into consideration, (it) doesn’t justify the use of the word ‘thug’ to describe the opposing team.

“This is an unacceptable word choice, for anyone to use,” Hunter said, “especially the governor of our state.”

Administrative reaction

Raleigh County Schools has a district policy that outlines appropriate behavior for coaches, athletes, parents and fans at athletic events. Student athletes are required to act in accordance with the student behavioral policy, said Raleigh Schools Superintendent David Price.

“We are conducting an investigation to ensure we have all of the facts of the incident,” said Price. “We are disappointed to read the statements that we have read and heard in the media.

“We will not make any more statements until a thorough investigation of the incident is finished.”

Both Raleigh and Greenbrier districts are governed by behavioral guidelines laid out by the WVSSAC.

Greenbrier Superintendent Bryant said that he is cooperating with WVSSAC, the Greenbrier East High School principal and others to investigate the Tuesday night incident. He said Wednesday afternoon that State Police had not contacted him.

“We’re carefully going through all the available information,” Bryant said. “Everyone’s working together.

“We want to make a final determination that is both accurate and justified in this situation.”

Greenbrier perspective

Greenbrier County Board of Education officials declined comment Wednesday about the incident that marred Tuesday’s basketball game between Woodrow Wilson and Greenbrier East at the high school in Fairlea.

“The matter is under investigation,” said Christy Clemons-Rodgers, community relations and communications coordinator for Greenbrier County Schools. “We have no comment at this time.”

Those from the Greenbrier County community who had not attended the game said they were not surprised that some sort of incident occurred.

One local woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said when she was in school dozens of years ago tempers often ran high in ballgames between rivals.

“I don’t know the details of (Tuesday’s incident), but there used to be a lot of bad blood when Greenbrier East and Greenbrier West played. That was a huge rivalry when I was in school,” she said.

East and West were once closer in size than they are now and were fierce rivals, as are East and Woodrow Wilson today.

Social media posts by East fans were relatively scarce in the wake of the Tuesday incident.

For those who were at Tuesday’s game, like Audrey VanBuren of White Sulphur Springs, the reaction to the incident was more visceral.

Just after arriving home from the game, VanBuren posted on Facebook, “I watched one of the saddest sporting events tonight I have ever seen in my life… A fight broke out in the stands on (the) Beckley side. A sheriff deputy and a state policeman tried to get order; it was crazy. To the man who put your hands on the state policeman, I hope (you are) spending the night in jail… Fans (and) some Beckley players trying to get involved, running your mouth, shame on you.”

Her post continued, “Why does this always happen when we play Beckley? I’m very disappointed. It’s not a very good example (you are) setting for all the young kids there tonight.”

In a telephone interview with The Register-Herald on Wednesday afternoon, VanBuren said she firmly believes there should be repercussions for the athletes who were involved as well as the coaches.

“Sports should be about sportsmanship,” she said, citing her own years of competing in athletics and coaching various youth sports.

She said she was proud that East’s players and coaches remained at the other end of the floor, away from the action, as the altercation played out.

“I’m glad our girls and coaches didn’t get into (the skirmish), and I’m glad police were there to break it up,” VanBuren said. “It was the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s disgraceful.”

Other incidents

The blow-up in Greenbrier County on Tuesday and Justice’s use of the word came just weeks after a reported racial incident in southern West Virginia. Charles pointed out that tensions among youth are high in the region.

In January, two rival high school boys basketball teams in Wyoming County were scheduled to play. The only black student on Westside High School’s team was 17-year-old Jace Colucci. When Colucci walked into the guest locker room at Wyoming East High School for the game, he found a stick drawing of himself with a noose around his neck.

His mother, Erica Ayers, said Wyoming East students had chanted “Hang Jace!” at a rally last school year. Students deny Ayers’ assertion, but the incident, which was recorded, is under investigation by the West Virginia State Police.

Wyoming County school officials are investigating the incident as well and are cooperating with police. Wyoming County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Cochrane has called in a special investigator and outside prosecutor since children of Wyoming deputies attend the two rival high schools.

Oak Hill High School parents reacted to Ayers’ statements on Facebook by reporting that they also had witnessed racism in high school sports. 

“It’s unfortunate what happened at the WE/Westside game, but boys from Oak Hill have been getting called the N-word by players, students and adult fans from both of those schools, plus multiple other predominantly white teams, since the beginning of time in southern West Virginia,” posted Jillian Lynch, a Red Devil mother of bi-racial children, in January. “Why is everyone so surprised?

“No one batted an eye when another local school’s student section depicted one of our players as a monkey on a sign during a game once.”

“On edge”

NAACP President Charles said Justice, school administrators and media have a strong role to play in ensuring that the Tuesday night incident at Greenbrier East results in healing and not in a bigger rift. 

She again encouraged Justice to use his position to address the region’s youth. She urged the governor and school officials to realize that students feel tensions that may not be immediately evident to adults. Adults must talk to them to find out their feelings.

“In this country right now, we have so much occurring, in schools and across the nation,” said Charles. “Right now, we’re on edge.

“What we need to do, when things like this happen, is to bring people together,” she said. “There needs to be apologies, there needs to be understanding, and people need to stop this, in stirring this pot.”

She reiterated that the governor and school officials must take steps to counsel and educate the affected teams on conflict resolution and the power and importance of language.

“Think of ‘Remember the Titans,’ “ she said, referring to an inspirational 2000 Disney film that was based on the true story of black American coach Herman Boone, who tried to integrate a Virginia football team in 1971. “A lot of people know that movie.

“Now, they did something about their problem,” she added. “What are we going to do here? What are those children feeling and thinking?

“Somebody needs to be talking to them.”

 — Tina Alvey, a reporter for The Register-Herald, contributed to this story.

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