MADISON -- As the NFL begins their season opener Thursday, Wisconsin's race for governor dives into the national anthem kneeling debate.
Gov. Scott Walker is following a similar playbook of President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to chime in on the NFL's policy after quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a movement of kneeling players who are protesting social injustice.
Walker's tweets elicited a quick comeback from the Democratic lieutenant governor candidate, Mandela Barnes, who questioned Walker's patriotism and asked why he never served in the military.
The back-and-forth played out in a series of tweets that came hours before the Thursday night kickoff of the NFL season. Walker, a Republican seeking a third term, punctuated one message with a cartoon image of himself known as a bitmoji in front of an American flag, hand on heart.
The tweets read as follows:
"Tony Evers’ running mate says “Take a knee.” Does Evers share that belief or does he believe that everyone should STAND UP for the national anthem out of respect for our Veterans and service members? 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! 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. Whether they kneel or stay in the locker room, it’s disrespectful to the flag and the men and women who fought to defend it including those who are part of Wisconsin’s National Guard. Where does Tony Evers stand on this? As a candidate for governor, does Tony Evers support NFL players blatantly disrespecting our flag and the Wisconsin men and women in uniform? If he wants to be the leader of our state, he owes them an answer. I will always support our men and women in uniform. The request is simple: stand for the American flag and the national anthem out of respect for those who risk their lives for our freedoms."
In another tweet, Walker asked whether Democratic candidate for governor Tony Evers supports "NFL players blatantly disrespecting our flag and the Wisconsin men and women in uniform? If he wants to be the leader of our state, he owes them an answer."
Evers responded by saying he's proud to stand during the national anthem but respects the free-speech rights of those who protest.
"Scott Walker wants to distract and divide us--anything to avoid talking about his record," Evers said.
Walker started the flap by retweeting a January message from Evers' running mate Mandela Barnes where Barnes posted "Take a knee" in reaction to a story questioning whether President Donald Trump knew the words to the national anthem.
Barnes, who is African-American, issued a stinging response to Walker, saying that "your president should learn the words" and "you just don't get it."
"Also, you could have served in THREE wars, why didn't you stand up then?" Barnes tweeted to Walker.
Lieutenant Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch also weighed in, saying on Twitter:
"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. As a journalist and a Republican, I respect free speech rights, but think there is a time and place for purposeful, meaningful political speech and the playing of our anthem isn’t it. Our anthem is about unity, freedom, our greatest ideals and those liberties heroes have died to defend. It is a time to stand together...despite personal differences...in a show of strength in patriotism and belief that America is one nation under God, indivisible. The indivisible part is important. I think standing up for our country is important. Shame my opponent doesn’t agree."
Barnes responded, saying "Now you're just lying."
Barnes also posted an image of himself wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey.
Walker first weighed in publicly on the national anthem debate in October, sending a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith that said he believes kneeling players are showing disrespect for the flag and veterans.
This debate on social media came just days after an endorsement deal between Nike and Colin Kaepernick prompted a flood of debate as fans reacted to the apparel giant backing the athlete known mainly for starting a wave of protests among NFL players regarding police brutality, racial inequality and other social issues.
Some fans urged a boycott of the company's clothes and sneakers, even burning and cutting out the signature swoosh logos.
Others said the backlash against Nike showed the polarizing debate has morphed well beyond whether NFL players should be allowed to demonstrate for social causes while the national anthem plays in stadiums before games.
The league itself weighed in Tuesday afternoon with an executive saying the social issues Kaepernick has raised are valid.
Kaepernick already had a deal with Nike that was set to expire, but it was renegotiated into a multiyear deal to make him one of the faces of Nike's 30th anniversary "Just Do It" campaign.
Nike on Wednesday, Sept. 5 unveiled its first "Just Do It" ad that'll air Thursday night during the NFL season opener. It highlights LeBron James, Serena Williams and others, and touches on the anthem controversy.
Kaepernick narrates the full spot but first physically appears midway through. As a camera pans to reveal Kaepernick's face, a reflection of a United States flag is visible on the facade of a building behind him.
Kaepernick says: "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."
At the start of the ad, Kaepernick says: "If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do, good. Stay that way, because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult, it's a compliment."
The former 49ers quarterback is revealed as the narrator toward the end of the spot.
The commercial's universal theme is about athletes pushing for bigger dreams. It features young athletes who compete amid various challenges, touching on issues of gender, disabilities and weight loss, among others.
Kaepernick says at the end: "Don't ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they are crazy enough."