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Donald Trump gave Roger Goodell one of his biggest tests yet, and he failed

The commissioner’s job is to defend the league’s integrity, “protect the shield.” And with the NFL under its biggest attack yet, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

NFL: Pro Football Hall of Fame Game-Enshrinees' Gold Jacket Dinner Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Roger Goodell has two main goals for his role as NFL commissioner — protect the integrity of the game and turn America’s premiere sports business into a $25 billion per year enterprise by the year 2027.

I don’t think CEOs have a written job description with verb-tipped bullet points, at least not like everyone else. I don’t really know; it’s an entirely different world that those of us who’ll top out in middle management will never experience. But it’s enough to understand the basic function of the job.

And for all the talk about the National Football League being a leader in this space or that one, at the end of the day it’s just a means serving Goodell’s two main goals.

We’ve seen over and over again how Goodell responds when it’s a player infraction threatening the integrity of the game. But what happens when an outside force does it from the most prominent bully pulpit in the world? How would Roger Goodell answer the call to “protect the shield” in that situation?

On Friday night, President Donald Trump hit the league with a broadside of his usual hateful, racist bluster, the kind of empty threat he breaks out when he needs to rile up his most rabid supporters to do something on his behalf.

Just like Goodell, this man has a job, too (raising money for his party and projecting his own brand).

In less than five minutes, a man who can count on roughly 38 percent of the voting population as his unwavering sycophants attacked the NFL for its efforts to make the game safer and its players for exercising their right to free speech. Taking it one step further, he begged his audience to stop watching professional football.

In what was supposed to be a stump speech for Sen. Luther Strange, Trump asked the audience if they’d “love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired?’”

Trump also that the league was “ruining the game” by punishing players who “hit too hard.”

Nothing that Goodell has dealt with in his role as defender of the game — potentially deflated footballs, ugly domestic violence incidents, coaches offering bounties for injuring players ... none of it — has threatened the league’s integrity and its bottom line more directly than Trump’s speech on Friday night.

The President of the United States put the NFL, and Goodell specifically, in a position where they had to respond.

The legend of Roger Goodell, the official version that the league puts forward and sends out its emissaries to repeat is one of a hard-working son of a U.S. Senator, someone who doesn’t back down from doing what’s right.

His father, Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator from New York, spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1969 and drew the ire of his own party and President Richard Nixon, a prototype Trump whose racist overtones were too subtle and rational settings too high for the modern conservative movement.

They chased him out of office in 1970.

The character and principle of the senior Goodell is supposedly a driving force behind his son. Roger Goodell keeps a record of his father’s opposition to that needless, costly war framed next to his desk.

In the official history of Roger Goodell that gets trotted out every time the league enters into another one of it’s long-running legal battles with players, that framed record is there as a reminder about the importance of integrity and doing what’s right.

Goodell is so committed to his principles and the game, we’re told, that it occasionally causes him to break the thin, candy blue blood shell that’s normally impervious to any criticism, direct sunlight and the plight of the lesser classes. So tough and uncompromising is this man said to be that Jerry Jones himself once commented on how large his balls were.

"He'll flare," Jones said in a 2013 profile of Goodell by ESPN’s Outside the Lines. "He's emotional, but I happen to like that. I think he's courageous. I think he has a big set of them. I think he's willing to step up and take the heat and take the risks. And he's willing to take the consequences."

Tough, big-balled, not afraid to fight when he has to.

If you believed the official legend of Roger Goodell, then you should have expected a committed, stern response to the President’s garbage political rhetoric that poses the biggest outside threat to the game’s integrity and bottom line the NFL has ever faced.

Instead we got this.

The take-no-shit boss of the most powerful league in America couldn’t even mention Trump or the office of the President by name. There was no defense of the league’s efforts to improve the game and player safety. (And whatever you may think of them, the NFL has never been shy over the last few years talking about that commitment publicly at any chance they get.)

And, worst of all, the commissioner did not defend the rights of his employees to speak freely under their First Amendment rights. He declined to say a word about the President of the United States abusing the power of his office to call for a private business to fire its employees and threaten the livelihood of everyone involved in the game and the business surrounding it.

Goodell tried to flex just a little with this part of the statement: “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players ...”

The effect wears off a little bit when he gets to the sentence attached after the comma: “... and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

It’s Goodell trying to have it both ways. He’s trying to defend the NFL from Trump’s attack, but he’s also walking that line of trying not to offend anyone, including the owners he reports to who gave millions to support Trump in various capacities.

Official legend aside, nobody expected anything more from the commissioner. And I certainly don’t expect anything from the owners. The NFLPA came out with a stronger response.

I hope every single player understands the threat posed to their livelihood by the President’s comments and decides to take direct action together. Today, it’s Colin Kaepernick being blackballed because he chose to use his platform to raise awareness about inequality and the threat it poses to society. Tomorrow, it will be another player who has offended the delicate sensibilities of the American right and their victim narrative for some other reason.

Unlikely as it may have once seemed, pro football is another front in the culture war, opened up by Donald Trump and the political commentariat that pushes his agenda. These attacks on players and the game itself are not going to stop. It’s red meat for Trump’s base, easy political fodder to cite in support of a hateful, racist agenda. And it’s a big problem for the NFL.

Roger Goodell’s job is to “protect the shield.” That’s a muscular way of saying maintaining control over the NFL brand and keep it on track for to meet Goodell’s other big goal of making the league a $25 billion-per-year business.

Goodell failed at that task, bigly.

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