CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP/WSAZ) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Friday offered a conditional apology for calling a high school girls basketball team “thugs," saying he didn't know the remarks would cause any trouble.
Several Woodrow Wilson basketball players have received game suspensions following an incident in a game against Greenbrier East High School.
Justice has drawn criticism for using the term after a scuffle broke out at a heated Tuesday night game between Greenbrier East High School, where he coaches, and Woodrow Wilson High School.
“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,” a heated Justice told The Register-Herald in a post-game interview. “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!"
The team's coaches are black, as are some of the players.
His comments spread quickly on social media and at the state Capitol, with one lawmaker, Del. Mike Pushkin, tweeting that the governor was making “thinly veiled racial slurs.”
On Wednesday, the Republican governor defended himself, issuing a statement that said “Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.” The statement did not include an apology, which irked some lawmakers.
“These are high school females playing athletics in our school system. To be the governor and call them thugs is unprofessional and it's immature,” said Del. Timothy Miley, the Democratic minority leader of the state House of Delegates, adding that he thinks the term has racial connotations. “When you use that kind of phraseology, it has consequences, whether you intended to have them or not.”
Then on Friday, in an interview with local ABC affiliate WCHS-TV, Justice said he was sorry if he hurt any feelings, while noting others who've used the word.
“First of all, I would tell them that I'm really sorry if I've done anything that has offended them. But secondly, I would just say this, Barack Obama used that term,” he said. “Newspapers in our state have used the term. The New York Times uses that term all the time."
“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,” Justice told the station.
Also on Friday, WVSSAC assistant executive director Greg Reed confirmed to WSAZ that five Woodrow Wilson players were suspended for 10 percent of their allotted games due to the incident during the game. Reed says this works out to be two games of their season.
West Virginia State Police say summons were issued for Donte Nabors for disorderly conduct and obstructing an officer and Steven Damon for disorderly conduct, as a result of their investigation. Gene Nabors was cited at the game for obstructing an officer.
Justice also spoke on the two game suspension. "I think that is adequate and enough in every way, but look, it's not the players, it's above the players. It's the coaches, the administrative people that are allowing a level of conduct to go on that's not good. These players are good kids. For crying out loud, I grew up in Beckley, I played the first game ever at the Raleigh County Armory as a Crescent Chipmunk 5,000 years ago. I love the Beckley people in every way and have given my heart and soul to the Beckley people. This is not the kids and everything, this is a behavior that's allowed above the kids or promoted above the kids and it's not any good for the kids."
Justice has a net worth estimated at $1.5 billion under a portfolio of coal and agricultural interests that have been the subject of multiple lawsuits over unpaid debts and safety fines.
He's been criticized for inattentiveness throughout his term by some who argue Justice is too busy with his expansive business empire to focus on governing, a claim the governor has pushed back hard against.
The governor's spokesman didn't return an email and voicemail seeking comment.
Last month, Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein apologized after using the word “thugs” while reviewing film with his players.