West Virginia Governor Jim Justice’s Petty Pursuit Of Greenbrier East’s Boys Basketball Coaching Job
By Marc Delucchi for Black By God THE WEST VIRGINIAN
While thousands of West Virginians struggle for their lives and livelihoods, the highest-ranking member of the state’s government is stuck in another high school basketball controversy. One of the poorest states in the country, West Virginia was hammered by flooding from Tropical Storm Ida and faces an uncontrolled statewide outbreak of COVID-19. However, amidst these crises, West Virginia’s Republican Governor Jim Justice has been tied up trying to get a third job as the head coach of the Greenbrier East High School boys basketball team.
Justice served as the Greenbrier East boys coach from 2010 until he resigned after becoming governor in 2017. Former NBA player Bimbo Coles replaced Justice but stepped away this summer after relocating to Florida. Justice has been the varsity girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East since 2000.
Since Greenbrier East is a public school, all coaching hires must be approved by the Greenbrier County school board. Justice’s hiring back in 2010 was nearly blocked by the five-person panel, which voted 3-2 in favor of hiring him. However, after the political makeup of the school board changed and Justice mired himself in several controversies, the governor found a less receptive group this time around. A motion for Justice to become the Greenbrier East boys coach was rejected by a 3-2 vote on August 23rd.
Justice and many of his supporters have called the vote politically motivated, ignoring numerous ways he has disqualified himself as a credible candidate.
The most obvious critique of Justice’s candidacy, of course, centers around his job as governor. Coles, whose NBA career spanned 14 seasons, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that Greenbrier East’s boys’ basketball team required a serious commitment: “It’s a full-time job.” Justice’s term as governor lasts through 2024, which would impair his ability to commit to the team.
Justice already barely functions as the girls’ head basketball coach at Greenbrier East, not attending practices and consistently deferring to his assistants. During public testimonies in front of the school board, John “Goose” Gabbert, a junior basketball player at Greenbrier East, told the board, “We deserve and want a full-time basketball coach, a coach that comes to all practices, not only games. We want someone who is going to care for us; we want someone who is going to put as much hard work and dedication as we do every day.”
Republican delegate Pat McGeehan, who represents Hancock County in the West Virginia House of Delegates, questioned Justice’s priorities last February, saying, “I think the governor does need to show up here more often and do the business he was elected to do.” Yet Justice has remained relatively unchecked in his coaching pursuits.
Moreover, Justice has far from kept a clean record as the Greenbrier East girls coach. The governor called the Woodrow Wilson High School girls basketball team “thugs” after an off-court incident in the stands involving an assistant coach. The team was predominantly Black and coached by two Black men.
The problematic history of the word “thug” has been well documented. Social scientists have examined the direct link between the 21st-century use of the term and increased criminalization of, and police violence against, Black people. The term has become a clear dog whistle used to label people, usually Black, as uncivilized and subhuman.
An op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail by David M. Fryson called for Justice’s resignation following the incident. In response to public outcry, Justice said he had “no racial bone in my body,” which appeared to be a misspeaking of the common conservative phrase to obfuscate accusations of racism, “no racist bone in my body.”
The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry for an interview.
Even beyond Justice’s problematic track record, in the modern age of rabid political polarization, it’s strange to see any institution welcome such a prominent political figure into a relatively insignificant job. Is Justice really worth these headaches? Outsiders need to understand Justice’s place in West Virginia, particularly Greenbrier County, to understand how this situation developed.
Greenbrier County is far from an economic metropolis. According to the latest U.S. census, 17.2% of Greenbrier’s population lived below the poverty line before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Greenbrier Resort & Spa has been the center of the county’s economy for centuries. Located on the White Sulphur Springs, the resort has drawn visitors since it was first built, primarily by slave labor, in 1778. To this day, it remains the largest private employer in the county.
Justice purchased the resort in 2009 and prevented it from entering bankruptcy after the previous owners laid off roughly half of The Greenbrier’s employees. Already a farming and mining tycoon, Justice’s business empire, and hold over West Virginia grew even stronger. When he was elected governor, Justice was considered by many the wealthiest person in the state. While he has handed over the day-to-day operations of his companies to Jill Justice, his daughter, he remains heavily involved.
Justice’s persona mimics former president Donald Trump’s brash, corrupt, self-interested politics and probably explains why Justice switched to the republican party following Trump’s election in 2017. One of Trump’s closest gubernatorial allies, Justice has a similar history of hidden debt, tax evasion and vindictiveness.
With so many people in Greenbrier County reliant on Justice, his power has persisted unrestrained. Justice’s financial empire is in turmoil. His estimated net worth, according to Forbes, has decreased by more than 70% since its peak at $1.7 billion in 2018. However, still in charge of many of the state’s largest employers and, of course, governor, Justice has continued holding his house of cards in place.
Justice has built his political appeal around modern right-wing “culture wars.” If someone criticizes him or something he’s done, he’s built the perfect deflective mechanism.
In Justice’s world, people aren’t critical of his multi-million dollar business ventures because of his history of not paying bills, mistreating employees, or the conflict of interests it creates for him as governor, but because they are out to get him. If someone says he shouldn’t be Greenbrier East’s basketball coach, it’s not because he already has multiple full-time jobs or has a checkered past as a coach, but because they disagree with his politics. Justice has to take everything personally because otherwise, he’d have to live in the world of facts, and those are rarely on his side.
Despite the Greenbrier East boys basketball coaching position remaining vacant, West Virginia’s official website for the office of the governor states Justice “is currently the head girls and boys basketball coach at Greenbrier East.” Many in the Greenbrier community fear that’s another sign that Justice is ready to do whatever he can to force his way into the job.
Now, Justice faces one of the few institutions in West Virginia willing to stand up to him. Despite the school board’s vote, Greenbrier East’s administration has remained steadfast that Justice is the best candidate for the open coaching position.
According to one community member connected to the Greenbrier East basketball program, a rumor is swirling around town that the governor originally told the Greenbrier East girls team he would not pursue the boys coaching job. The community member spoke to Black By God The West Virginian, on a condition of anonymity, fearful of retribution from Justice. I was unable to confirm the gossip, but even if Justice was upfront with the girls’ team, it’s hard to imagine players and parents excited about their already half-present coach taking on another time-consuming commitment.
“This is ridiculous,” the community member said, “People don’t want this. There are certainly other things he should be focusing on… This is all about his personal glory and his record.”
It’s believed by many in town that several qualified applicants, including assistant coaches under Justice and Coles, applied for the job. However, Greenbrier East’s athletic director, principal and assistant principal all recommended Justice for the position instead.
Another Greenbrier East supporter was equally upset when they heard Justice was picked to succeed Coles. In a conversation with The West Virginian, they said, “I was infuriated… I strongly believe the governor has too much on his plate and needs to focus on being the governor.” The supporter contacted school board members and encouraged many of their friends to do the same. “I believed from the beginning of his tenure at Greenbrier East up until he was elected as governor of West Virginia, he [Justice] had every right to be the coach… I feel he needs to give up coaching and focus on doing the job that he was elected to do.”
Justice has until Wednesday to file a grievance challenging the school board’s vote. With the Greenbrier County school board scheduled to meet later today (September 14th), superintendent Jeff Bryant could nominate Justice for the third time. If Justice is once again rejected and files a grievance, the decision would kick back to the superintendent, who would presumably hire Justice. The process might not be over there either. The board could file a grievance in response to the superintendent’s decision, which would kick it up the state’s political ladder.
For now, the Greenbrier County school board did something to Jim Justice few are able to do: they told him no. It is a temporary victory for some in the Greenbrier community, but ultimately trivial compared to the scale of problems they face. Greensill capital, the primary lender for Justice and his companies declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Around that same time, the IRS moved in on Justice and his entities, placing liens on several of his properties, including The Greenbrier. 12 years after Justice purchased the resort out of bankruptcy, its future is once again up in the air.
All this is happening as West Virginia experiences its most severe outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. According to the Mayo Clinic’s data, nearly 1 out of every 1,000 West Virginians are testing positive for the novel coronavirus daily. An employee at The Greenbrier was one of several community members in Greenbrier County who have been killed by the virus in the past seven days. It’s another reminder that the people of West Virginia don’t need a basketball coach, they need a competent governor, and Jim Justice seems unfit to fill either of those roles.
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