As the last burgundy and gold leaves cling desperately to the treetops of the nation’s capital, and D.C. residents watch the sun set on another Indian summer, the city’s NFL team finds itself, once again, mired in irrelevance.

Washington is the owner of a 3-7 record and the fourth-place spot in the NFC East, the weakest team in what is widely considered the league’s weakest conference. That comes as no surprise. With the exception of two brief but glamorous runs during the Roosevelt and Reagan administrations, Washington has been at best an NFL afterthought and at worst a laughingstock.

While the squad has languished on the field, media coverage has focused on an increasingly loud debate off the field. A small group of American Indian leaders — most prominently, members of the Oneida Nation suing to abolish the team’s trademark — have renewed their efforts to force a change in the team’s name.

The media are beginning to notice: For a last-place team, Washington is finding its name in the headlines with alarming regularity. But more often than not, it’s to announce that the name will, quite literally, no longer appear in headlines.

Washington City Paper stopped using the name last fall.

It was a contentious move, but not a shocking one. A free alternative weekly with a liberal bent and a focus on the local arts scene, City Paper was an ideal candidate to lend a prominent nameplate to the growing chorus of progressive voices calling for the team to change its name.

“There wasn’t a whole lot to it other than a recognition that the name had been a problem for a while,” City Paper editor Mike Madden said. “The fact that our culture seems to be so comfortable with using Native Americans as mascots for so long shows the extent to which Native Americans have been marginalized over the centuries.”

Unlike the Kansas City Star, whose editorial policy of referring to the team simply as “Washington” inspired City Paper’s decision, the local weekly elected to find a replacement name. “Pigskins” eventually won out in a reader poll, presumably for its reference to an actual football and for its compatibility with “Skins” and “Hogs,” two colloquial names for the team.

“Rather than just writing around it, we thought it would be more fun to come up with something that both avoids being a racial slur and avoids awkward formulation,” Madden said.

City Paper’s decision garnered headlines in sports and media blogs, but it hardly seemed like the harbinger of an uprising against the team’s name. It’s one thing for a local alt-weekly with limited sports coverage like City Paper – or other regional papers like the Star and San Francisco Chronicle, which cover the team only rarely – to take a stand. It’s another entirely for The Washington Post or ESPN to follow suit.

But modern journalists are expected to do more than report the facts in the style that their editors approve. They have personal brands to maintain and express their own opinions through TV and radio appearances or on their own Twitter accounts. Many have come out against the team name, and in doing so they have garnered national attention for the issue while bypassing the need for top-down organizational policy change.

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Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise has spoken out against offensive American Indian mascots since holding a conversation early in his career in journalism with Phil St. John, a Minnesota Sioux who convinced 39 high school teams to change their mascots and went on to protest the 1992 Super Bowl.

“It’s not just a name,” St. John told Wise while detailing an encounter that he and his 5-year-old son had with an Apache-themed mascot. “It destroys my kid’s self-image of who he is. He thinks he’s in a John Wayne rerun for his whole life.”

Wise then wrote a memorable feature on the University of Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek for The New York Times in 2003. Since coming to the capital, he’s been one of the most outspoken critics of the football team’s name, which was a perilous position to take less than a decade ago.

“When I first went to my editor [in 2005] saying I wanted to write a column about this, he said, ‘Dude, do you really want to be that guy? You’re going to lose some readers,'” Wise said. “But every year since then, I’ve tried to write a column on it and put a slightly different spin on it.”

His efforts went largely unheralded until the last year or so, as there has been a major upswing in opposition to the name. Today, Wise is just one of many high-profile journalists and sports personalities to hold a once-controversial opinion. The Post’s Charles Krauthammer, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke, ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook and author John Feinstein have all spoken out strongly against it.

This October, NBC Sports anchor Bob Costas issued perhaps the most notable journalistic critique thus far.

“[The name] can’t possibly honor a heritage or noble character trait, nor can it possibly be considered a neutral term,” he said in a halftime editorial during Sunday Night Football. “It’s an insult, a slur, no matter how benign the present-day intent.”

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As the debate has migrated from the back pages of local papers to the national airwaves, it has drawn serious attention in the political world for the first time.

In January, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said he would insist on the discussion of a name change if the team were to consider a move back into the District from its current stadium in Landover, Md. The D.C. Council passed a resolution – albeit a powerless one, given the team’s location outside the city – condemning the team name.

The feds aren’t letting local officials hog the name-shaming spotlight. In March, non-voting House Del. Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) and 19 co-sponsors – including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) – introduced a bill that would void any trademarks that disparaged American Indian culture, specifically citing the football team’s name.

Two months later, 10 members of Congress addressed a letter in protest of the name to FedEx CEO and prominent team sponsor Fred Smith, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and each of the league’s 32 team owners, including Washington’s owner, Dan Snyder. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not sign, though she voiced her opposition to the name as well.

Finally, in an October interview with the Associated Press, President Obama said that he would “consider changing the name” if he owned the team.

“I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told the AP.

Federal action against the team, though unlikely, would not be without precedent. The Kennedy administration threatened to end Washington’s lease on its D.C. stadium when former owner George Preston Marshall refused to desegregate the team in 1962. Obama is highly unlikely to take a similar tack, however, as a federally forced name change would be both legally questionable and politically unpopular.

Therein lies perhaps the strangest aspect of a movement that has made its way into the White House itself: its widespread unpopularity.

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Hop on a D.C. city bus on an average Monday morning, and you’re likely to hear discussion of quarterback Robert Griffin III’s play the previous day. You may hear criticism of Mike Shanahan’s coaching decisions, or possibly an update on the NFC East playoff picture.

What you won’t hear is a raging debate on underlying racism in sporting mascots or a discussion of the government’s authority to force a private business to change its name. For all the outrage and calls for change on the airwaves and in the halls of government, popular opinion on the issue generally wavers between apathy and adherence to tradition.

“Most people don’t feel strongly about it one way or the other, which probably helps support the status quo,” Madden said.

A May AP poll revealed that 79 percent of Americans support retaining the name. Locally, the numbers are nearly as striking: Two-thirds of respondents to a Washington Post local poll conducted in June indicated that they support the team’s current name, although a majority recognize that it is offensive to American Indians.

American Indian advocacy groups are doing their part to change D.C.-area opinion. The Oneida have aired radio spots in opposition to the name and recruited scores of local clergymen to their cause, in hopes that bringing the debate to the ultra-local level will help them gain ground within the team’s fanbase.

Madden speculates that any major change in fan opinion – and buyer behavior – might eventually prompt Snyder to change the name, though the owner’s public comments indicated he won’t be budging anytime soon.

“I assume there’s a cost-benefit analysis he’s going through,” Madden said of Snyder. “If at some point he decides that changing the name rather than not changing it would earn more money, he may [change it].”

Snyder’s relationship with the team’s fanbase plays a strange role in the name debate. Constant personnel missteps and the team’s perennial mediocrity have earned him derision from fans in his 13 years at the team’s helm, and his attempts to suppress criticism by banning signs from FedEx Field and suing reporters for libel haven’t helped. In the name-change debate, he’s finally found an issue where he and most fans are on the same page.

According to Wise, that might prevent him from taking action.

“For the first time, he’s getting across-the-board admiration from his fans on an issue,” Wise said. “That’s all he ever wanted, but he can’t get it with his lousy team.”

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The future of the Washington football team’s name remains uncertain, to say the least. Wise estimates a change is inevitable but will take three to five years; Madden believes it will take at least that long to sway fan opinion. The end result notwithstanding, the debate over the name makes a compelling case that the power of the pen is still very much alive.

The nation remains split on the issue, but the continued existence of an apathetic majority makes mass public outcry seem unlikely. Unsatisfied with this lack of appetite for social change, some writers and commentators have taken it upon themselves to amplify the voices of a historically marginalized group – simply by refusing to use a certain word. Their efforts have helped move the debate from an obscure Indian reservation into the office of the leader of the free world.

This may represent either a heroic movement on the part of the fourth estate or an abuse of the bully pulpit, depending on your perspective. This reporter, for one, hopes that the Georgetown student media – in keeping with the ideals of social justice and respect for fellow man on which our university was founded – join in D.C.’s silent protest.

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