LANSING, Michigan – On October 6, 2017, the Lansing Catholic High School varsity football team ran out on their home field to play against Ionia High School. After pregame warmups, the team lined up for the national anthem.
“My heart was beating so fast,” Senior Roje Williams said. “It felt like time around me just stopped.”
Williams and three of his teammates, all starters, locked arms and took a knee as the anthem started. Williams says he could tell the crowd was shocked.
“Not one person was singing the national anthem,” Williams said. “Normally you hear the whole student section singing it.”
The week prior the school told players that they would be punished for kneeling, so Roje and his teammates weren’t allowed to start. They were put in quickly after the first snap. Lansing Catholic won that game by a score of 33-18.
The “Lansing Catholic High School 4,” as they have become known on social media, wanted to call attention to the racism and harassment they say they have experienced at LCHS for years.
At a forum held last December, three of the four players recounted some of that racism and harassment.
During his freshman year, a fellow student called Williams the n-word. In his sophomore year, a student wore black face to a football game. During his junior year, a student made a sign comparing starting quarterback Michael Lynn III, who is black and also knelt, to Harambe, the gorilla that was shot in a Cincinatti zoo in 2016. These are just some incidents of harassment the players say they have experienced at school.
In each case, Rovonya Velasquez, Roje’s mother, says little to no punishment was dealt to the students responsible.
“[We’re] getting the same song and dance over and over of, ‘We’ll look into this incident, we’ve talked to the student, we’ve dealt with it,’ ” Velasquez said.
The Monday before the Ionia game, the football team held a meeting with LCHS Principal Doug Moore and Athletic Director Brian Wolcott. In that meeting, the players said it was decided that whoever wanted to take a knee could do so without punishment from the school.
However, two days after that meeting in October, LCHS President Thomas Maloney called another meeting with the parents of football players. Velasquez says that parents were notified of the meeting by email two hours before it began.
“That meeting had to be one of the most disrespectful and degrading meetings I have been at in my entire life,” Velasquez said.
In that meeting, which took place immediately after a meeting of the LCHS Board of Trustees, Velasquez says Maloney reversed on the position the players were given earlier that week. She said that Maloney said that protests are not “allowed or accepted” at Lansing Catholic and that there was “no room for discussion.”
The LCHS 4 continued their protest throughout the rest of the football season. The school didn’t let the players start, and has warned of further punishments against them, but hasn’t elaborated on what those punishments will be.
Doug Moore, Brian Wolcott and Thomas Maloney all declined to comment for this article. On Jan. 23, Diocese of Lansing Bishop Earl Boyea announced the creation of a Racial Diversity Task Force in a press release. Boyea says The Task Force will try to address the protests and racial divides in the Lansing community.
“It is not racist to ask all students to stand and honor the flag. The men and women of our military have sacrificed so much. They deserve respect,” Boyea said via press release. “That stated, after speaking with these families, I do now see that some people see our flag differently.”
Michael Diebold, director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, said the Diocese won’t be responding to the players’ accusations or the school’s punishment for the protests.
“We will not be making further public comment on the details of what may or may not have occurred at any of our schools over the last number of months,” Diebold said via email.
Joan Jackson Johnson, the director of the Human Relations and Community Services Department for the city of Lansing, is leading the task force. The Diocese will be appointing members, that the public can recommend online, through the fall of 2018, after three of the LCHS 4 have graduated.
Although the task force was created in response to their protest, Velasquez says no one has reached out to the players or their parents.
“They can’t wait for us to go away,” Velasquez said. “They have said nothing, now you’re throwing more people at a problem and [they] haven’t addressed any of the issues.”