Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker went after professional football players who take a knee in protest during the national anthem and called on his Democratic opponent to denounce the protests in a series of tweets posted Thursday.
The tweets prompted Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes to ask why Walker himself never enlisted in the military, and Republican Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch to tweet that "WI neighbors" have seen Barnes kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner.
"With the NFL season opener tonight, I’m calling on all players to stand up, put their hands on their heart, and show some RESPECT to the brave men and women in uniform — it’s that simple and the least they can do!" Walker tweeted, the message punctuated with an American flag emoji.
"And none of this staying in the locker room either. STAND UP. Be honorable. Show respect. It’s a simple ask compared to what our service members sacrifice EVERY SINGLE DAY for us," Walker said in another tweet, this one accompanied by a Bitmoji illustration depicting Walker with his hand on his heart in front of an American flag.
"I am proud to stand for the national anthem, and I am proud to respect our First Amendment rights to peacefully protest," Evers said in a statement. "Scott Walker wants to distract and divide us — anything to avoid talking about his record. That's why we need a change. As governor I will work every day to bring people together and tackle the issues facing Wisconsin families all over our state."
It's not the first time Walker has criticized the protests, which started in 2016 when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench before a preseason game during the anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality in the United States.
"I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right," he told reporters.
Army veteran and former Seattle Seahawks linebacker Nate Boyer met with Kaepernick and convinced him to kneel in protest instead of sit during the anthem.
“I think maybe taking a knee would be a little more respectful. It’s still a demonstration. You’re still saying something, but people take a knee to pray. So for me it was a common ground, at least, to start from," said Boyer in a 2017 CNN interview.
Kaepernick is no longer playing in the league, but other players have joined the protest movement since.
On Wednesday, Nike unveiled a new ad campaign featuring Kaepernick, prompting some people to post photos of themselves burning or otherwise destroying their Nike gear.
Last fall, Walker sent a letter to the NFL and the NFL Players Association urging players to "move on from what has become a divisive political sideshow," stand during the national anthem and use their platforms instead to stand against domestic violence.
On Thursday, Walker asked whether his Democratic opponent, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, supports "NFL players blatantly disrespecting our flag and the Wisconsin men and women in uniform." He added the hashtag "StandUpTony" to a few tweets
Walker also posted a screenshot of a January tweet from Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Mandela Barnes. Barnes' tweet, which linked to an article questioning whether President Donald Trump knew the words to the national anthem, encouraged Trump to "take a knee."
Barnes responded to Walker with a photo of himself wearing a Kaepernick jersey.
"Feel free to @ me next time. Also, your president should learn the words. Also, shows you just don't get it. Also, you could have served in THREE wars, why didn't you stand up then?" Barnes tweeted.
Eventually Kleefisch, a former TV journalist, weighed in: "My opponent has made clear that he believes in kneeling for the National Anthem. In fact, WI neighbors have told me that they have seen him do exactly that."
Kleefisch said she respects the right to free speech, but thinks "there is a time and place for purposeful, meaningful political speech and the playing of our Anthem isn’t it."
Barnes said Kleefisch's tweet claiming people had seen him kneel was a lie.
In an interview with NFL.com's Michael Silver last month, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the protests are "about equality and something bigger than ourselves, and bringing people together, and love and connectedness and equality and social justice, and putting a light on people who deserve to have the attention for their causes and their difficult situations that they're in."