CFL 'Diversity is Strength' T-shirts released after racial violence in U.S.

The CFL made a statement Sunday by releasing planned 'Diversity is Strength' T-shirts weeks before their scheduled fall date. Players and coaches for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the B.C. Lions wore the shirts after racial violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., on the weekend.

Shirts deliberately put on sale early in response to violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.

CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie and Saskatchewan Roughriders wide receiver Chad Owens show off their Diversity is Strength T-shirts Sunday. (CFL)

The Canadian Football League sent a message of honour and pride by unveilling planned "Diversity is Strength" T-shirts weeks in advance in response to riots and racial violence in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.

Paulo Senra, the CFL's director of communications, said the shirts were given to players and coaches of the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the B.C. Lions Sunday before their game to be worn during warm-ups.

The shirts are on sale to the general public for $19.99 each. Proceeds of the sale go to charities that "enrich the multicultural fabric of our country and support those in need," the league said.

The response online was immediate and positive.

The shirts feature the slogan "Diversity is Strength" on the front, and the names of numerous CFL alumni on the back from various religious and ethnic backgrounds. 

The shirts were originally to be released in the fall, said Senra.

"As part of Canada's 150th birthday, we wanted to highlight the important values of our country and the parallels with our league," he said in an emailed statement. "'Diversity is Strength' was ultimately chosen because of how well it encapsulated the progressive history of the CFL and its players."

However, over the past weekend, violence erupted at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. While hundreds of  neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members marched with torches in support of "white pride," hundreds of protesters objected to the rally. A 20-year-old man is accused of plowing his car into the protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32. 

Senra said after the violence, the CFL's executive decided to unveil the shirts early. 

"The idea to release the T-shirts on Sunday in Saskatchewan was a direct response to those events, and yet another way for the CFL to show that while we are not perfect, we are adamantly against hate and bigotry and stand for diversity and inclusion," said Senra. 

Staff members changed flights and picked up boxes full of the T-shirts in Hamilton to make sure they got to Saskatchewan on time.

The beloved Obby Khan

Former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Obby Khan is one of the names featured on the shirt. The beloved former offensive lineman played in the CFL for eight years and was one of the league's first Muslim players.

"It's very, very personal to me. It really warms my heart to see myself on there … My dad passed away years ago and my brother sent a text saying 'Dad would be proud.'

"But I'm also very proud and honoured that the Canadian Football League is such a diverse league that they come out with these shirts, with this perfect timing now, to highlight how diverse and how awesome our Canadian league is and a reflection of Canada."

Khan said being Muslim in the CFL fostered respectful, honest conversation in the locker-room and on the field. "A lot of players, especially the Americans, would ask about that. We'd have locker-room discussions, open, candid conversations about what it means to be Muslim, following the faith of Islam, in the locker-room, on the football field and as a person.

"I had one player who said to me, 'Obby, before I met you, I thought all Muslims were terrorists.' He said, 'Growing up in the United States, I thought all Muslims hated Americans, that you hated western civilizations.'

"It opened up dialogue with so many people and I really loved it."

Senra said the shirts were initially for a limited run for Canada150, but the pressure online to make them available prompted the sale.

"We are talking about dedicating a portion of the proceeds to Purolator Tackle Hunger, as food banks serve, of course, a diverse community. Another portion will go to our alumni association, which was part of the original arrangement made months ago when we put alumni names on the T-shirt.

"But this wasn't designed as a way of making money or even selling T-shirts. It was a way of sending a message about a value we believe our league and our county share.

"Many of our fans are telling us they want to spread that message by getting a T-shirt of their own, and we're working to make that happen."