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Justice 2 (copy)

Gov. Jim Justice coaches the Greenbrier East girls basketball team during a 2020 game.

If the now-viral video of a New Year’s Eve party at The Greenbrier Resort was a gut punch to sidelined high school winter athletes around the state, Gov. Jim Justice’s Friday news briefing was a slap in the face.

And a kick in the shin with a steel-toed boot.

Dismissive, defiant, steadfast and downright insulting, Justice — the owner of the aforementioned resort and the girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School — stuck to his guns in delaying the prep sports season until at least March 1 and seems determined to do so, even if one those guns eventually goes off and shoots a hole in his foot. I say that because Justice prides himself on his love for West Virginia, yet by continuing on the course of action he’s set, he could be unequivocally harming the generation that will run this state in the future.

Off the top, know that everyone with half a brain and even lower percentage of humanity is taking this pandemic seriously. This virus is terrible. Hopefully, all of us do what we can to prevent the spread, flatten the curve and protect those at higher risk.

But we aren’t doing everything possible. Go to your local grocery store. Drive by your local bar. Try to get a table at your favorite restaurant.

I’ll save you the trouble. They’re packed. I go to Kroger’s every Sunday where a trip for food turns into a clattering game of bumper buggies complete with people picking up things (including produce) off shelves, looking at them and then putting them back. It’s like shopping in a mosh pit. I’d know, I’ve been in a few.

Now Justice, despite his overwhelming concern for safety, is sending kids back to school on Jan. 19. That’s elementary school kids, middle school kids and all students in high school in counties that aren’t red. Yet sports remain off until March.

Think about it. Think about gym class at a decent-sized Class AA or Class AAA school. How many students do you think are in that gym class? Twenty? Thirty? How many are on a basketball team? Show me the difference. And that doesn’t count crowded classrooms or middle-aged or even older teachers leading them.

It’s a point touched on by Dr. James Perry, a pulmonary critical care doctor who sees COVID-19 patients in ICU every day. It’s not that he necessarily believes sports are a must, but that there’s no added danger in sports if school is in session.

Honestly, if Justice had just kept school off until March 1 and that video never surfaced, I probably wouldn’t have churned out a seven-part series of stories this week highlighting the issue from every possible angle. My main goal with it was to get out of the way and let the people speak.

That’s because I’m not a coach, but Mick Price, Rick Greene and the 10 to 15 others I spoke to are. I’ve never recruited a kid to college, but West Virginia State coach Bryan Poore has. I’ve never run an AAU organization and I’m not familiar with the national landscape of travel basketball, but the West Virginia Thunder’s Scott Johnson has and is. I’ve never officiated a prep game, but Steve Dodd, Mark Akers and Bob Weiford have nearly 80 years of experience doing so between them right here in West Virginia. I’ve never treated a COVID-19 patient, but Dr. Perry has, estimating that his group sees up to 75% of the ICU cases in West Virginia.

Even two coaches from Kentucky — Jason Mays (Ashland Paul Blazer boys) and Pete Fraley (Boyd County girls — and two from Ohio — Nathan Speed (Fairland boys) and Doug Graham (Ironton girls) — took time out of their schedules to speak on the issue. Mays and Fraley were both preparing for season openers that night, yet made time to express the upturn they’d seen in their kids since their return to the court.

And while all five of West Virginia’s border states are at least practicing, Justice clings to the belief that he knows better than any of them. On Friday, he was flat-out speaking in fallacies.

Justice accused several kids of not wearing masks while participating in the “Let Them Play” rally Friday at the Capitol. Considering he barely acknowledged or looked at them on his way into the building, I’m not sure how he’d know, but multiple press members reported that nearly all of the students were wearing masks.

Justice insinuated that the return of sports would mean the return of parents, grandparents and crowds to gyms. I’ve not once heard that suggested or argued for by a coach, player, the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission or anyone else. Prep football operated with fan restrictions. Other states are doing the same in basketball. That is a concession everyone is willing to make.

Maybe worst of all, Justice accused coaches and other adults of being the reason prep athletes were rallying at the Capitol, as if those teenagers aren’t capable of forming their own thoughts or opinions on matters by which they are directly affected. Justice may coach a team, but obviously doesn’t know kids these days, or follow them on social media.

They saw the video and were outraged. They know hypocrisy. They can watch WVU play on TV. They can read box scores from Mountain East Conference games. They know their friends in other states are playing. They know that the majority of regulations are coming unfairly at their expense.

And it’s taking a toll on them.

I’m not a psychologist, but Dr. Anji Null in Charleston has been one for 27 years and she said that she’s never seen anything as detrimental to the mental health of young people as this pandemic has been. Depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation — all of it is on the rise.

I’ll take her word for it. And Dr. Perry’s. And the word of every single person I talked to this week who, across the board, said that if school is in session, there’s no reason sports should be under these restrictions.

No one is arguing safety isn’t important. No one is saying it shouldn’t be paramount. My parents, aunts and uncles, co-workers ... there are many people in my life who are at a heightened risk due to age. I get it. I get the caution and the concern.

Then don’t send the kids back to school. Close bars, restaurants and stores. Close The Greenbrier. But that’s not going to happen.

I worry. I worry about the aforementioned loved ones. I worry for our economy. I worry for the elderly.

But I really worry that we are so concerned about the death of the elderly that we aren’t giving the young the chance to live. And with no additional risk.

I get not letting them play today, but if school is in session on Jan. 19, let them practice on Jan. 19.

Let them play, Jim. More importantly, let them live.

Contact Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RPritt.