By Lauren Rearick
While all eyes were on the stage at Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate in Detroit, Michigan, there were several special guests in the audience: Three former high school football players, who were benched for taking a knee in 2017 joined after receiving an invitation from former congressman Beto O’Rourke attend.
As students at Lansing Catholic High School in Lansing, Michigan, Michael Lynn III, Matthew Abdullah, and RoJe Williams were inspired by Colin Kaepernick and collectively made the decision to take a knee at one of their 2017 games, Time reported. Their teammate, Kabbash Richards, also participated, but he was unable to attend the debate. Lynn told Time he witnessed continued racism in his school and said he “was getting to the age where I wanted to say something.”
As a result of their actions, the teens were benched for part of a Friday night game, the Lansing State Journal reported that year.
According to CBS Detroit, O’Rourke found the former students through “local outreach,” and after speaking with the men by phone, he invited them to attend the debate. In a statement to the Associated Press, O’Rourke said the four “served their community in one of the most American ways possible.”
As previously reported by MTV News, Kaepernick took a knee during a performance of the National Anthem in 2016, while he was still a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers. He made the decision in order to speak out against continued racial oppression committed against black individuals by police officers. “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now,” he told reporters. “When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country... I’ll stand.”
Kaepernick’s protest sparked a nationwide conversation, and other athletes began kneeling in solidarity at other sporting events. But the move also sparked considerable backlash: President Donald Trump spoke out against Kaepernick and called for the football player to leave the country.
As for O’Rourke, this isn’t the first time he’s supported the statement: Time notes that he even went viral for a 2018 campaign speech that defended NFL players who chose to protest. “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere or anyplace,” he said.
"People on the other side of it make us feel like we're not as American as them," Lynn told local ABC affiliate WZZM of O’Rourke’s past remarks. "The fact that he said that and feels that way, from his heart, that was really powerful. That's what put Mr. O'Rourke on my radar."