As with so many things involving Trump, the president’s cannonball into the middle of a relatively contained pool of player protest set off waves in all directions. In the absence of any substantial backlash to the initial Kaepernick-led wave of demonstrations, the N.F.L. could at least tacitly endorse the players’ right to use their platform. But then suddenly not only the president of the United States but also a significant share of Americans were saying “Stand up and stick to sports.” It moved the whole argument onto much more historically explosive — and, in a league where the owner-player divide is also largely a white-black divide, racially charged — grounds. “You guys are cattle, and we’re the ranchers,” the former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm famously told the Hall of Fame offensive lineman and players’ union leader Gene Upshaw during a collective-bargaining negotiation in 1987. The line — oft-quoted to this day — encapsulates both the authority structure of the N.F.L. and an autocratic view held by most of the “ranchers” and many of the paying customers. More recently, during a tense owners’ meeting at the height of the anthem protests in October, the Houston Texans’ owner, Bob McNair, said: “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” according to an ESPN report. Most people construed the remark as an insult with clear racial overtones against protesting players, nearly all of whom were African-American. (McNair later apologized and claimed that the “inmates” he was referring to were not the players but executives at the league office.)

When I asked Goodell whether he or anyone on his staff had any communication with the White House, back-channel or otherwise, he smirked (I took this as a no). “Our focus is on what we do,” he said. “Our focus is on the game itself.” Nevertheless, owners and league officials close to Goodell said he was more supportive of the protesting players than they would have expected. He resisted pressure to enforce a “stand for the anthem” mandate from more conservative owners — the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Washington Redskins’ Daniel Snyder among them. Goodell spent hours listening to players’ concerns and meeting with members of the N.F.L. Players Coalition, a newly formed advocacy group dedicated to the racial-justice issues that prompted the anthem protests. The league pledged to the coalition that it would donate $89 million over seven years to social-justice organizations. That was less than half what Goodell’s new salary could bring him in just five years, but the commissioner still drew considerable praise from players who were critical of him in the past. “I was in two meetings with Roger, and I felt like he was sincere in what he was trying to do,” Eric Winston, an offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals and the president of the N.F.L. Players Association, the players’ union, told me. “In hindsight you can always do more, but I do think he has done a very admirable job.”