Three former high school football players who took a knee during the national anthem in an expression of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick will attend the Democratic primary debate Tuesday night at the invitation of candidate Beto O’Rourke.

Michael Lynn III, Matthew Abdullah and RoJe Williams, former players at Lansing Catholic High School in Michigan, accepted the invitation to the debate in Detroit when O’Rourke phoned them last week. Kabbalah Richards, another of their former teammates, cannot attend because he is at college.

All four players, who knelt during the anthem at games in 2017, either didn’t start or appeared to have their playing time reduced. Lynn and Abdullah later transferred to other schools.

O’Rourke said in a statement to the Associated Press that the four “have served their community in one of the most American ways possible.”

The ties of player-protesters to the candidate date to his forceful 2018 defense of NFL players when they were attacked by President Trump for following Kaepernick’s example and taking a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice. In response to a question during his unsuccessful Texas senatorial campaign last August, O’Rourke said at a rally, “I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights any time, anywhere in any place.”

Trump had helped stoke a national debate over the topic in 2017, when he called for any “son of a bitch” who protested during the anthem to be fired. Protests moved from the NFL that season to other sports and leagues, including on the high school level.

O’Rourke’s response during that rally last summer went viral and prompted the family of one of the four Michigan men to donate to his Senate campaign. That’s what brought the four players to O’Rourke’s attention. The three men, now of voting age, will meet O’Rourke for the first time Tuesday night. Lynn said he has not yet decided for whom he will vote.

“People on the other side of it make us feel like we’re not as American as them,” Lynn told the AP, speaking of O’Rourke’s 2018 comment. “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.”

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