Protesters rally for former quarterback Colin Kaepernick on Sept. 10 outside Ford Field in Detroit. (Jose Juarez/Associated Press)

Every time an NFL quarterback is injured, or a passer plays poorly enough to bring his job status into question, fans and observers will wonder and debate whether Colin Kaepernick will play football again. Take a minute, though, and it’s difficult not to conclude a verdict has already been rendered. It’s difficult to believe Kaepernick will play in the NFL again.

The Bengals are not signing Kaepernick, as Paul Dehner writes, despite rumors earlier this week about Cincinnati players campaigning for him as starter Andy Dalton has fallen off a cliff. Kaepernick told reporter Shaun King over the weekend that he wants to play and is in condition to play immediately, so it is not a question of his will. It is a question of NFL ownership’s willingness.

Kaepernick’s past performance has proved he is good enough to be in the league in some capacity. Over the weekend, Tom Brady said Kaepernick is “certainly qualified.” In case after case, since the San Francisco 49ers told him they would cut him and he opted out of his contract, teams have rejected him. Owners do not want the supposed “distraction,” or they believe fans would not accept the first player who knelt on a sideline during the national anthem, or they personally dislike his politics.

The hive-minded cowardice of NFL ownership and management has kept Kaepernick a free agent for this long. What is going to change going forward? If a league that has seen Scott Tolzien start a game has decided it doesn’t want Kaepernick, then it’s not going to happen. The Minnesota Vikings, with an injury to starter Sam Bradford, gave Case Keenum a whirl Sunday in Pittsburgh. The Jacksonville Jaguars signed Ryan Nassib on Monday.

How desperate for quarterbacks must the NFL be for one team to sign Kaepernick? If the line is not drawn at the quarterbacks listed above, the line is not getting drawn. As a group, NFL teams have shown they’re willing to play and sign quarterbacks who, by any reasonable measure, are worse than Kaepernick. It looks more and more certain that collective, stubborn spinelessness is going to keep Kaepernick out of the NFL.

What happens next? Unless Kaepernick changes course and declares he is finished with football, his status will remain an open question. There will be no precise prompt for outrage or celebration or reflection. But at some point, the NFL, its teams, its players and fans will start to realize Kaepernick is not returning and have to grapple with what his sustained absence means.

On June 23, about a month before NFL training camps opened, Dr. Harry Edwards, the well-known Cal-Berkley sociology professor and one-time adviser to Kaepernick, sent an email to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Edwards implored Goodell to use his influence to make certain Kaepernick signed with an NFL team.

“If Colin Kaepernick is NOT on a roster at the beginning of camp and the regular season, his effective banishment from the NFL will be a MAJOR topic of conversation about the NFL among sports columnists, broadcasters, pundits, pontificators, and opinion makers, and the public so long as he is not in the League and it will become the ONLY conversation every time a starting QB is injured, unable to play, and replaced by a “back up” who [is] lesser skilled than Kaepernick,” Edwards wrote, in part. “In consequence, the focus will not be on the games, not on the star athletes, and not on the marque matchups to the degree desired, strategically marketed, or normally expected.”

Kaepernick’s continued unemployment has not blotted out the league’s on-field product. But it lingers as a simmering discussion that boils each time a quarterback struggles or suffers an injury. Kaepernick has not dominated NFL conversation, but he has hovered in the background, ever-present.

The league will find out how long that remains the case, and whether Kaepernick’s status will remain background noise or erupt into an encompassing topic. Edwards warned Goodell that Kaepernick would become a “martyr” if he was not signed. He argued, convincingly, Kaepernick should be a model: Rather than only protest, Kaepernick has donated nearly $2 million to youth, education and community programs.

The league is going to find out, because all evidence suggests no NFL team is going to sign Kaepernick. It may be time to admit, if not accept, that NFL teams will not permit Kaepernick back into the league.

>>> Player leaders voted to keep DeMaurice Smith as the NFLPA head, as Mark Maske writes. The main upshot is that Smith will lead the union in the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations. There was some intrigue in the voting. From Maske’s story:

Washington attorney Cyrus Mehri had announced his intention to challenge Smith for the job. That won’t happen now, and Smith will lead the union through the upcoming set of labor negotiations with the league and the owners. The current collective bargaining agreement lasts through 2020, and Smith has said publicly he believes there will be a strike by the players or a lockout by the owners in 2021.

“This approach with this secret constitution and vote of 14 disenfranchises 2,100 current NFL players, let alone former players,” Mehri said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “There are players on 26 NFL clubs that were not represented in this vote. They [the players] were instructed not to look at other viable candidates, such as my campaign.

“His legitimacy has been thrown out the window because he refused to compete like NFL players do every day. We’re going to right this wrong over time. We’re going to keep getting the word out. This robs players of their ability to control their destiny.”

>>> The New England Patriots and cornerback Malcolm Butler, the hero of Super Bowl XLIX, may be headed for a divorce. Butler, playing for $3.9 million this season and a free agent next summer, wants a new contract. Eric Rowe started over Butler in Sunday’s 36-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Butler ended up playing more than Rowe, 49 snaps to 34, but the starting snub led to speculation about a possible trade.

Coach Bill Belichick did little to tamp the speculation Tuesday, when he praised Rowe and had little to say about Butler, as Stephen Hewitt writes. Last year, the Patriots dealt linebacker Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns after it became clear he wanted a new deal. The Patriots could use Butler to add to their capital a year after sending a first-rounder to New Orleans for Brandin Cooks. They could also use help with their pass rush and at receiver following a spate of injuries.

“It’s all about this year,” defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said about Butler and Rowe, per the Boston Herald. “I think what things have gone down in the past doesn’t really matter to us. We’re trying to get better for this year, and the guys that are out there and positions are where we think they need to be right now currently, and to help us win that particular week. So, certainly with Eric Rowe involved, having a full offseason, OTAs, training camp and doing a good job for us from that standpoint. I think all those guys that go out there and play have earned some time on the field and whatever that is, depending on how the game is going, kind of just plays itself out when we’re in the particular situation we’re in as far as the game is concerned.”

>>> The Browns placed second-year wide receiver Corey Coleman, one of the top wideouts in the 2016 draft, on injured reserve after he broke his hand. Fantasy implications: Rashard Higgins, who was targeted 11 times on Sunday, days after coming up from the practice squad, is a viable sleeper. Higgins was a dominant player at Colorado State and finds himself with a wide-open opportunity.

>>> The Miami Dolphins suspended linebacker Lawrence Timmons indefinitely after he went AWOL over the weekend, leading the team to file a missing person’s report with police. As Adam Beasley details, Miami traded for the Saints’ Stephone Anthony, a sign Timmons’s days with the franchise are numbered.

Read more:

The making of Colin Kaepernick

Jenkins: Colin Kaepernick blacklist risks hurting the NFL’s real priority: Its bottom line

Colin Kaepernick can’t help the Bengals, but he could help a few other teams

Jay-Z dedicates song ‘The Story of OJ” to Colin Kaepernick at NYC music festival

NFL players’ union names Colin Kaepernick its Week 1 MVP for his charity work

Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed, and that’s a bad look for the NFL

Bengals players reportedly want team to consider bringing in Colin Kaepernick