On Sunday afternoon, London’s Wembley Stadium became the centre of the biggest story currently gripping the United States.
The NFL has been coming to town with all the pomp and fanfare we know to expect from American sports for a decade now, but this year it was different - this year, the whole NFL is different.
The Jacksonville Jaguars put on a show for their adopted home crowd on the field - stunning the pre-game favourites, the Baltimore Ravens, 44-7 - but the real story was written before kick-off, as more than 20 players across both teams took part in the biggest national anthem protest the NFL had seen, up until that point.
That number was eclipsed a number of times throughout the day - no player from either the Tennessee Titans or Seattle Seahawks emerged onto the field for the anthem before their game in Nashville, while former Army ranger Alejandro Villanueva was the lone member of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the pitch to hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in Chicago.
Dozens of the league’s biggest names took a knee, raised a fist, linked arms or remained in the locker room in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent slamming of NFL protesters - Adrian Peterson sat on the bench, the Miami Dolphins’ London-born star Jay Ajayi knelt, 17 members of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots followed suit - in fact, at least one member of every team protested in some way.
One man who was not among them? Colin Kaepernick. Why? Because in a league stuffed with average quarterbacks, the man who led his team to a Super Bowl just four years ago is still without a club.
Kaepernick, of course, is the man who started it all - the man who last year bravely took the subject of police brutality against black Americans and thrust it - peacefully - into the conversation around America’s largest sport.
In some ways he has achieved his goal - the discussion he put his entire career in jeopardy for is being had - but not by the NFL or its clubs. The real point he has been trying to make is being intricately skirted around.
It has taken a ludicrous statement by Donald Trump - who blames the NFL’s rating struggles on Kaepernick’s protests, and has called for teams to fire any players who might exercise their right to protest during the anthem - to really unite the league in its message, although this message feels to be one of ‘defending football’ from Trump rather than pro-Kaepernick and his goal of holding police to account.
Responding to Trump’s comments on Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell accused the President of being ‘divisive’, and ‘lacking respect’ for the league. He went on to highlight the brilliant efforts of football players in supporting hurricane relief efforts, saying: “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month.”
Sure, Mr. Goodell, that’s true - NFL players have been exceptional in the wake of these tragedies, but that’s not really the point, is it?
It looks good on the NFL to put on a show of unity in response to Trump’s idiocy, but Goodell’s comments deliberately avoid any specific mention of black players, racial injustice, Colin Kaepernick, or anything whatsoever to do with the protest itself.
Some NFL teams have come out stronger - the Seahawks being the most notable example. “We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country,” they wrote in a strongly-worded statement about why their players would not be taking the field for the anthem on Sunday night.
Other franchises voiced similar support, albeit with far weaker, more wishy-washy, free speech-focused wording. But while the league and its clubs supporting its players is both important and necessary, one ugly fact remains, lingering there unavoidably. Colin Kaepernick is still unemployed.
Kaepernick is not a world-beating quarterback - he is not even necessarily that good - but he is easily - and I really do mean easily - good enough to be playing in the NFL this season. As ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out, last season, Kaepernick was the 23rd best of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, according to a measurement of ‘adjusted net yards per attempt’, which he calls the “best simple metric for quarterbacks using raw stats” - essentially it’s a measure of how far the quarterback is getting the ball down the field on each play, but takes into accounts things like sacks. That puts him in the middling range of starting quarterbacks, and yet Kaep can’t even find himself a job as a back-up.
In a league where the likes of Scott Tolzein, Tom Savage and Blake Bortles are getting starts, the fact that Kaepernick cannot even find a place on a roster is ludicrous, and can only be as a result of his political stand.
Indeed, in his research, Barnwell goes on to point out that Kaepernick’s position, at his age, coming off the season he has just had and the ability he has shown in the past, is literally unprecedented. If Colin Kaepernick had not taken a knee last season, he would be in a job right now. That is a fact.
As the NFL finally begins to open its eyes to the injustice Kaepernick has been highlighting, we cannot forget the man himself. Can the league really hold its head high in support for these protests while he continues to train alone, clubless, essentially in exile?
Obviously, not every squad needs Kaepernick, but he could certainly improve many. At surface level, statements like Goodell’s are defiant, but below that thin meniscus, they will continue to dissolve like candy floss dropped in a puddle until Kaepernick is throwing passes in the National Football League. Want to show you really care? Give Colin Kaepernick a damn job.