At the gym he owns in Sterling, Virginia, Eddie Mason displays one of his old burgundy and gold Washington Redskins helmets on the wall.
It’s a reminder of his credentials — and his four most productive years as an NFL linebacker — in the area he and his family now call home.
But since last Monday, when the team announced it would retire its long controversial name after completion of an ongoing internal review, Mason’s been asked: will he take the helmet down?
“Nah, bro,” Mason has replied. “I earned that helmet. That legacy will continue.”
That’s one school of thought for Mason, a Siler City native who played linebacker for Jordan-Matthews, the University of North Carolina and then Washington’s NFL team from 1999 to 2002. His family has Cherokee and Lumbee heritage on his mother’s side, and he said he didn’t view Washington’s nickname as derogatory. When he thinks of the team, he thinks of its historical success on the field, its fans and his personal experiences on the roster, all of which were positive.
“But also I would never minimize the perspective of someone else,” he said.
That’s the other way Mason looks at it — and why he ultimately supports the name change as one major step in what he hopes is a “fresh start” for the sputtering franchise.
“Say I had an issue as it relates to being African American,” he said. “I have this one thing that I believe, and somebody minimized that, tried to make it as though it wasn’t a big deal. Well, I would never want anybody to do that — and I wouldn’t do that to anybody.”
Washington’s decision to retire its 87-year-old name — which team owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today in 2013 he would “never change” — drew widespread praise across the sports world and among prominent Native American organizations, activists and allies.
The United South and Eastern Tribes is a non-profit that represents 30 tribal nations — including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina — at regional and national levels. In a statement, president Kirk Francis Sr. said USET was “encouraged and heartened” by the change.
“While it should have been relegated to America’s racist past long ago,” Francis said, “we welcome this change as an opportunity for education, growth, and reconciliation, as the nation acknowledges its historic and ongoing shameful acts against tribal nations and Native people … bottom line: our people and cultures are not mascots, and the time is long past due for us to be properly respected, not only within sports teams, but in all aspects.”
The National Congress for American Indians, which represents broad interests of tribal governments and communities, said July 13 was “a day for all Native people to celebrate.”
“We commend the Washington NFL team for eliminating a brand that disrespected, demeaned and stereotyped all Native people,” the organization said in a statement, “and we call on all other sports teams and corporate brands to retire all caricatures of Native people that they use as their mascots.”
Ken Huff, a former UNC offensive lineman who lives in Governors Club in Chatham County and runs a custom home renovations company, is another local with ties to the franchise. The No. 3 overall pick in the 1975 NFL Draft, Huff played the last three years of his career (1983-85) with Washington.
Huff, a right guard who appeared in Super Bowl XVII in 1984 with the team, said the nickname’s derogatory nature “wasn’t a perception in my mind, ever.” He knows demographics play a role there.
“You’re asking me as a white, Anglo-Saxon American,” Huff said, “so I’m not going have the views that some other people may have. I can understand the perception and the feeling that a lot of Americans had about the name, thinking it was derogatory. I can certainly empathize with that.”
Like Mason, Huff said the nickname has a “proud association” for him, but he supports its retirement.
“Even if a minority of people had a problem with it, then it’s probably time to change,” he said. “We’re in a time right now where a lot of things are being brought into question: some justifiably, and some maybe not so. But we’ve got to examine things so we’re not offending large groups of people — or any people. It’s not right.”
Mason, who has kept up with the team since his retirement and trains some current players at his gym in nearby Loudoun County, hopes Washington will commit to a serious “change of culture.” He cited other issues, such as a Washington Post story last Thursday that detailed 15 women’s allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse by former team employees, and the team’s on-field struggles.
“This gives way to a lot of great, special and unique opportunities — not just building, but rebuilding the brand,” Mason said of the name change. “I think there’s nothing wrong with a fresh start in life.”