And while President Trump has certainly taken notice and ramped up his criticism of the athletes and their activism, his eyes are not the only ones paying attention to the hot-button issue that has arguably become the biggest culture-war battle of his presidency.
Here's a reminder from CNN Tech about the opportunity that Russia sees in the divide here over the anthem:
CNN worked with researchers at Clemson University that have archived millions of tweets sent by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll group that was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February. The accounts' links to Russia were discovered by Twitter, which provided details about them to Congress. The data shows the trolls repeatedly weighing in on the debate, using different accounts to take both sides. While they used some accounts to push petitions to fire the protesting players, they used others to hail them as heroes.
Over the past year, social media networks have identified and removed thousands of accounts tied to the IRA. But despite the tech companies' efforts, there’s no indication that the group is shying away from the NFL controversy.
The Washington Post previously reported that Russia bought more than 3,000 ads on Facebook during the 2016 election that showed “a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign."
The Post reported that Russian operatives used Facebook to specifically target Americans with strong feelings on political activism among African Americans, illegal immigration and other cultural issues. The Post's Leslie Shapiro broke down what the specific ads look like.
The ads were an attempt to exploit the divide during the months leading up to the presidential election.
"Their aim was to sow chaos. In many cases, it was more about voter suppression rather than increasing turnout,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in 2017.
It has not been difficult to sow chaos online over race issues in America, including those related to the National Football League protests, because there is so much racial tension here to exploit. Trump continues to harp on the issue, which plays well with his base. His supporters view the protests as disrespectful to the American flag, national anthem and military.
Just this past week, Trump tweeted about the protests several times.
But the fans are over it and want the focus back on the game and away from politics.
NFL fans told The Post's Jenna Johnson and Tom Howard that the politicization of the game is harmful and a distraction.
“The whole purpose behind the kneeling has gotten corrupted by the politicians,” said Richard Campbell, 44, an African American father of two teenage girls who traveled to the game from North Carolina. “It was a simple gesture that was meant to bring attention to something that needed to be addressed — but people have taken it and turned it into a political agenda. They turned it into this whole: You’re either with the country or against it.”
“I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the whole thing,” said Matt Cory, 38, a political independent who lives in the area. He doesn’t like players kneeling but thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. “You come to a sporting event to relax and enjoy yourself . . . I get it. I get that it’s important, but I’m just tired of it. I’m exhausted.”
But it does not appear that these frustrations will be extinguished any time soon. And as long as this issue continues to be a priority for Trump — and, perhaps more important, one that elicits strong reactions — voters can expect that Russia will continue to take advantage of the divisiveness of the topic.