NEW YORK -- There is little make-believe talk this week that what goes on outside NFL team buildings stays outside the building during this young-but-embattled season.
Giants linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka was at MetLife Stadium on Sunday when a plane towing a banner that read "Goodell Must Go" flew overhead before New York's game against Arizona. Eli Manning says it's hard to ignore the image crises the NFL is fighting when it's on TV day after day.
By the time Kiwanuka, Manning and Victor Cruz -- three of the most thoughtful Giants -- spoke with the media Wednesday afternoon, they didn't pretend they were too deep into preparations for Houston this week to hear how the NFL's major corporate sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch had complained about the league's bungling of its child abuse and domestic violence scandals.
They knew NFL league office remained in full crises-control mode, too, with commissioner Roger Goodell still out of sight. They saw the amended punishments handed out to Ravens running back Ray Rice and Vikings star Adrian Peterson, the consternation that the Panthers' Greg Hardy and the 49ers' Ray McDonald are attracting for not being immediately benched. They agreed little had been handled correctly.
But there is still a missing piece to this story, too, you know. And Kiwanuka, Manning and Cruz all landed upon it independently as each of them stood by his locker Wednesday, saying some things that haven't been said enough.
What is stopping NFL players themselves from carrying the fight against domestic violence in their ranks?
What is the responsibility of players themselves to respond to the league's poor record on domestic abuse rather than leave it to sponsors or the league?
Why hasn't there been a unified, forceful -- even imaginative -- initiative undertaken by the players' association as a group, especially since player after player has complained how the many good guys are being tarred by the actions of a few?
Said Kiwanuka: "Speaking as a member of the players' association, you want the league to handle [these cases] right. You want them to get it right the first time. You want to get all the facts first. But if someone does something wrong, then they should take their punishment like a man. ... A few cases like this ruin 100 good deeds that are going on every week."
Added Manning: "These are serious issues that we've got to make sure don't happen and we can't accept from players, from teammates. We don't like it when the NFL gets a black eye on anything. As players, we've got to be aware of what's going on. ... Be good citizens in the community."
"The reason to do it isn't because of how public opinion is running now, because what happens when public opinion goes away? That only creates cynicism. The reason for players to do it is because it's right."Mathias Kiwanuka
Across the room, Cruz said: "Players have to do a good job of keeping order. ... It's up to leaders of each team to keep teammates in check. ... Player to player."
That's a stronger, more proactive personal-responsibility message than union president Eric Winston embraced earlier this week, when he said that the NFLPA is ready to sit down with the league if the NFL wants to discuss what to do about domestic violence.
Why does the union need an invitation?
Why not have NFL players own this issue rather than continue to let the issue demonize them?
As Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter pointedly asked on television Sunday, sometimes amid tears as he talked about how violence against women has touched his own family: Why are the vast majority of players, who do nothing illegal, surrendering power so easily to the likes of Rice or Peterson, the minority that does behave badly? Especially when, as Manning said, learning the details of how the Vikings' Peterson hit his 4-year-old son with a switch "make you just want to go home and hug your own child."
"I saw Cris Carter speak," Kiwanuka said, "and you can see why someone who experienced that in his life would want to cry over this. ... I agree with him."
Kiwanuka also agrees that if a young man with ALS can spark a recent national movement by coming up with a fundraising idea like the Ice Bucket Challenge, and the NFL players can get so demonstrably behind the work the league does for breast cancer awareness, there's nothing stopping the NFLPA from, say, independently adopting the fight against domestic violence as their own cause, and maybe even show a little ingenuity of their own in the process.
Super Bowl Sunday is already called America's unofficial national holiday.
While the two-decade-old assertion that Super Bowl Sunday is the most violent day of the year for women has been debunked again and again as a myth, domestic violence experts add the actual truth is much worse: Domestic violence is a horrific problem every day of the year. A woman is assaulted every nine seconds in America and one in four females will experience abuse in their lifetime.
These are not trifling stats.
What if the players engaged the league and advertisers to take a look at Super Bowl Sunday -- their most high-profile collaboration of the year, the one day when the players and the league and the sponsors' ambitions to leverage the game's colossal popularity all actually dovetail perfectly -- and dedicate the day to some effort to combat domestic violence? Something similar to how the league throws its muscle behind breast cancer awareness month.
Give the new campaign a sharp name. Make it happen.
Think how much NFL players could change perceptions if the effort to stop domestic violence originated among the players themselves, not the league or a beer company eager to protect market share.
"It could work. And it's something that could be done on Super Bowl Sunday this year," Kiwanuka nodded.
For the players themselves, leading the league's work against domestic violence could flip an issue that demonizes too many of them unfairly.
The sight of players actively leading the NFL's fight against domestic violence from the ground up rather than the league office down could be a certifiable point of pride instead.
It would be something more useful and far-reaching than just a punitive policy in which the league office punishes offenders and everyone moves on.
And it would make the players' personal stories more important.
So far, one of the most powerful asides of the Rice/Peterson fallout has been the high number of other NFL players who have stepped forward to reveal how domestic violence has touched their family's lives. As it turns out, what they've been saying all along is true: They're not all perpetrators. Sometimes their families are victims, same as you or you or you.
The Ravens' Chris Canty choked up on camera after more information came out about Rice and his suspension. Hall of Famer Howie Long has spoken about being shuttled among relatives who raised him as a child, and tough times he had. Other players have spoken of sisters, parents and other relatives who've been raped or killed in domestic violence incidents.
Nothing is stopping players from organizing an effort to combat domestic violence no matter what the owners or sponsors or Goodell does.
"The reason to do it isn't because of how public opinion is running now, because what happens when public opinion goes away?" Kiwanuka stresses. "That only creates cynicism. The reason for players to do it is because it's right."