W.Va. governor denies racism over 'thugs' basketball comment

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice delivers his annual State of the State address in the House Chambers at the state capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday said it's absurd to accuse him of racism for calling a high school girls basketball team “thugs” after a scuffle broke out at a game. 

Justice's defense comes a day after a game involving Greenbrier East High School, where he coaches, was forced to end early when the opposing team's coach got into a tiff with someone in the stands.

“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 a reporter from The Register-Herald after the game, referencing the opposing team's name. “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!"

“They don’t know how to behave and at the end of the day, you got what you got,” he said.

The team's coaches are black, as are some of the players.

By morning, Justice's comments were making the rounds on social media, with one Democratic state lawmaker, Del. Mike Pushkin, tweeting that the governor was making “thinly veiled racial slurs.”

Justice, a Republican, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon defending 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. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd,” he said.

He went on to add that one of the opposing team's coaches has been cited by the West Virginia State Police for obstructing an officer. A spokeswoman for the state police didn't return a voicemail seeking comment.

“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,” Justice said.

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