Charleston – Local delegates say that Governor Jim Justice's decision to call a high school girls basketball team with black players and coaches "thugs" on Tuesday was inappropriate, while several also said they couldn't know the governor's intentions.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, and Del. Jeff Pack, R-Raleigh, called for an apology.

"I sincerely hope he offers an apology for that, and it's certainly warranted," Steele said Wednesday. "I couldn't imagine being a young girl playing high school sports and the governor of my state calls me a thug."

During a timeout, with Greenbrier East leading Woodrow Wilson minutes into the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Woodrow assistant coach Gene Nabors and a fan got into a verbal confrontation behind the Woodrow bench, escalating an already physical game. The incident led to Woodrow head coach Brian Nabors taking his team off the court. After a lengthy delay, the game was suspended.

Greenbrier East head coach and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice campaigned for the game to be called a forfeit. In an interview, he said, “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."

None of the local lawmakers overtly called the governor racist. The word "thug" is disproportionately used to refer to black men, often when the speaker is trying to promote the idea that black people exhibit criminal behavior or are more worthy of fear. There are no black lawmakers representing the local area.  

Steele said he listened to audio of the incident and observed that Justice "had a lot of emotion going through him, and he said something that was bad and shouldn't have been said, and I think he needs to apologize for it.

"At the same time, when he does, and I feel strongly like he would, offer an apology for that, I don't think he meant any type of – I know it's been accepted to have a racial connotation to it, and that was what immediately struck me," Steel said. "I'll be the first one to tell you that that's how it struck me when I first read it.

"I don't know that he meant it that way, I want to be believe that he did not," Steele said.

"I think that he was in a situation where a fight broke out, and it wasn't like he was involved in it, but his players and their families were and I think it was a lot of emotion and a poor choice of words. Me and you both know he's been subject to that from time to time."

In February of 2018 at an event attended by teachers, service personnel and other state employees in Greenbrier County, Justice addressed the idea some people had suggested to raise the severance tax on natural gas to fund PEIA. Justice said, “There’s not a Chinaman’s chance in the whole wide world that’s going to happen. 

Guy Aoki, a fourth-generation Japanese American and the founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, later told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that the phrase began being used more frequently in the 1800s when Chinese workers were sent to do dangerous tasks, such as work on railroads and in mines.

“They were used to do the risky things the white workers didn’t want to do, and God knows how many of them were lynched,” he said. 

Steele said the governor's comment "could do whole lot of harm to our community."

"At the same time I think we have the kind of community that if had the heartfelt apology for it, I think we can understand the moment he was in, and we would be the kind of folks that could forgive him," he added.

In a floor speech, Delegate Jeff Pack, R- Raleigh, said that "when we mess up, we apologize."

"Oftentimes we get worked up and we get in situations where we're agitated or aggravated and we often say things we don't mean. I've done it; I'm certain everybody in here's done it. That's not to say that's an excuse."

He added that "when we genuinely recognize that we have wronged another and we go and we sincerely apologize and we attempt to make amends, those of in the Christian faith, we're commanded to forgive," Pack said. "It's not an option. I might forgive you, I'll think about it, we forgive.

"I do hope the governor – I hope the governor apologizes publicly. I hope the governor apologizes privately to those 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."

Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, noted that he didn't witness the incident.

"I have heard about the comment," he said. "And my statement would be sports will often bring out comments and behaviors that we end up apologizing for the next day. When it comes to the comments of the governor, I think he probably regrets those today but it is unfortunate when things kind of slip out and we don't realize all of the repercussions of what we're saying or the potential misunderstandings, so hopefully the governor just like me and everyone else from time to time, he will learn from this situation and perhaps not fall into the temptation of saying something that would be hasty, and regrettable later on."

Justice did not apologize. In a statement Wednesday, he said, "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.

"I’m extremely proud that my coaches, my team, and myself were not involved in this incident in any way, shape, form, or fashion and I'm truly saddened that the Woodrow kids had to be subjected to this behavior."

Roberts said that he had read the statement.

"The comment is still the same," Roberts said. "I think sometimes the way people respond when they regret things, I think sometimes they dig the hole deeper, then it becomes more confusing, but I can't read his mind and understand why he said what he said but I certainly, over 40 years being involved in athletics with high schools, I certainly have had my share of people saying things that were not appropriate and certainly to label people in such as way is not a good thing."

Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, also noted that he wasn't at the game.

"He shouldn't of been either," he said. "The best way to not say something inappropriate and offensive at a high school girls basketball game in Greenbrier County is not to be at a high school girls basketball game in Greenbrier County and be on the job and at work like 134 of us are."

On the House floor Wednesday, Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, called Justice “an embarrassment to the state of West Virginia” and also called for an apology.

"He doubled-down on his statement, that these children are thugs, as if what he says doesn’t matter, because it’s only how it matters to Jim," Fluharty said. "How it’s interpreted by Jim. Not how it’s interpreted by young girls on that basketball team, but how he interprets it.”

Fluharty added that he heard no comment from Justice when “a legitimate hate group had their paraphernalia set up in the halls of this body” and that Justice has declined to support the Fairness Act, which would extend employment and housing protections to LGBTQ people.

Last year, Brenda Arthur, who had previously represented herself as a representative of ACT for America, set up an anti-Muslim booth in the state Capitol during a "Republicans Take the Rotunda" event. Following widespread media coverage, ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as an anti-Muslim hate group, later sent a statement saying they did not authorize the booth. 

“I think when we run for office, we try to get rid of stereotypes that plague the state of West Virginia, the stereotypes that we fight against, that we’re a state that supports bigotry, a state that supports racism," Fluharty said. "It’s something all of us – I believe – we can agree on. So 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.”

He said the governor was “unwilling to own up to his mistakes.”

“So I hope Mr. Governor, that you own up to your mistakes, that you simply say you're sorry. That the words you are stating on the record, in the public have meaning. That those young girls who you called thugs last night – they should be able to look up to our governor. They should be able to be proud to say that you’re our governor, and that you fight to end these stereotypes and not become one yourself.”

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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