Behind the scenes: How “Diversity is Strength” T-shirts were released early

Christina Litz was listening to the radio in her car on Saturday as news of the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia came over the speakers and that spurred the league to hit fast forward.

An action-packed 36 hour period ensued.

With it being Canada’s 150th birthday, the Canadian Football League wanted to highlight the league’s inclusiveness and diversity. In the off-season Litz, senior vice president marketing and content, Paulo Senra, director of communications, and Jim Neish, licensing consultant came up with the idea for a T-shirt that embodied the values of Canada and paid respect to the progressive history of the CFL

“Diversity is Strength” was ultimately chosen as the phrase for the front of the T-shirt because of how well it encapsulated the parallels between country and league. Then a partnership was made between the CFL and CFL Alumni association in an effort to highlight the diversity of CFL stars like Bernie Custis, Normie Kwong and Jack Jacobs. Every continent except Antartica has had a person play in the CFL.

Originally the T-shirts were going to be released just before or during Grey Cup week in Ottawa, but when the developments happened in Virginia the CFL wanted a direct response, showing the league is adamantly against hate and bigotry. Instead, standing for diversity and inclusion.

Starting with Litz, efforts were made to get the T-shirts to Saskatchewan. Through series of calls, texts and emails between Litz, Senra, commissioner Randy Ambrosie, Matt Maychak, vice president communications and public affairs, Kevin McDonald, vice president football operations and player safety, and Glen Johnson, senior vice president of football operations, the early release decision was made. Ambrosie signed off on it and leaders with the Lions and Riders were looped in.

“Although we aren’t perfect, the CFL has such a long and rich history of being inclusive and progressive. In a moment when there might be a focus on negativity due to the horrific events in Charlottesville, we felt it was time to refocus on the positive aspects of diversity,” Ambrosie said.

“All you have to do is look at the names on the T-shirts and recognize these were players from every race, colour and creed who came to our league and were given an opportunity to became stars. This isn’t at all about being political, it’s just who we are and really worthy of celebration.”

Trouble being the two boxes of T-shirts were at the CFL head office in Toronto. Litz drove to pick them up, delivered them to Max Rosenberg, manager social media and content, in Hamilton on Saturday as he was leaving for Saskatchewan the next day. He changed his flight to leave earlier in order to distribute the T-Shirts in Regina.

BC Lions Frederric Chagnon and Adrian Clarke sport the new ‘Diversity is Strength’ t-shirts.

Quickly photos of the players and coaches wearing the T-Shirts flooded social media and Canadians around the country wanted to get their hands on them. On Tuesday a limited amount of the T-shirts – due to overwhelming demand – were made available. Fans are telling the league they want to spread that message by getting a T-shirt of their own.

A portion of the proceeds will go to Purolator Tackle Hunger, which matches up well because they serve a diverse community, as well as the CFL Alumni Association. The T-shirts were never designed as a money-grab, it was simply a way of sending a message about values the league believes the CFL and Canada share: a history of inclusion and diversity.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.