Three former Michigan high-school football players who were disciplined after kneeling for the national anthem will attend the second round of Democratic primary debates with Beto O’Rourke on Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.
O’Rourke invited four former players: Michael Lynn III, Matthew Abdullah, Kabbalah Richards, and RoJe Williams, all of whom were benched in 2017 after taking a knee. Richards is unable to attend the debate because he is away at college.
The African-American students were inspired by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who captured national attention in 2015 when he began kneeling during pregame ceremonies to protest what he called racial injustice in policing.
In a statement provided to the Associated Press, the former Texas congressman said the four men “have served their community in one of the most American ways possible.”
O’Rourke first learned of the four former Lansing Catholic High School players after Lynn’s family donated to O’Rourke’s Senate campaign in response to his zealous defense of the NFL players who followed Kaepernick’s lead in protesting during the national anthem.
Lynn’s family was moved to donate to O’Rourke after viewing a viral video in which O’Rourke praised Kaepernick and his fellow NFL protesters for upholding the American tradition of peaceful protest.
“I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere or anyplace,” O’Rourke said to cheers during an August campaign event that helped propel him into the national spotlight during his race against Republican senator Ted Cruz.
Lynn told the AP that he has not yet decided whom he will vote for but said that O’Rourke’s defense of Kaepernick earned his respect.
“People on the other side of it make us feel like we’re not as American as them,” Lynn said. “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.”