'Diversity in everything': Neal Hughes represents Roughriders in CFL diversity campaign

Regina-born Neal Hughes is the Saskatchewan Roughriders ambassador for the CFL's Diversity is Strength campaign.

Former Rider Hughes, who is Métis, is team's ambassador in CFL campaign to promote diversity

'This game of football is a great example of how diversity can be strength,' said former Roughrider Neal Hughes. (Tyler Pidlubny/CBC)

Fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders may have noticed something a bit different on the sidelines recently. 

Instead of the usual black attire, Riders head coach and general manager Chris Jones and his staff have been sporting green T-shirts that say "Diversity Is Strength."

Players on the sideline who aren't suiting up for the game are wearing the tops as well.

The fashion change is part of a CFL campaign to promote diversity in the league.

Each team in the league has a shirt featuring their team colour and the campaign slogan, along with the name and number of an ambassador.

Former Roughrider Neal Hughes is Saskatchewan's ambassador. 

"It's just bringing awareness that this game of football is a great example of how diversity can be strength when everybody comes together and works towards a goal," said Regina-born Hughes, who was with the Riders from 2004 to 2014.

"Once you put the helmet and shoulder pads on, you step on that field, you're all on the same team and you're all working towards one goal, and that's winning a football game."

He said being an ambassador is an opportunity to show youth that they should be proud of where they come from.

Hughes, who won two Grey Cup championships with the Roughriders, says he didn't know he was Métis as a kid.

"I hung around with my family and there was a lot of visibly Aboriginal people in my family, so that's just what I knew," he said.

"Everybody treated everybody with respect."

In what was a rare occurrence, Riders head coach Chris Jones covered up his normally all-black attire on Aug. 19 with a T-shirt sporting Neal Hughes's number, 32, and the 'Diversity Is Strength' message. After a 40-27 win over the Calgary Stampeders, the players suggested that he should continue to wear it. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

He said he grew up around a tightly knit family atmosphere where he learned about his heritage. 

"That's part of Métis culture — it's family. They had to stick together," he said. "The more education I received, the prouder I became of where I came from."

However, there has been some backlash during the campaign, mostly on social media.

Although it's a select few, some are saying the campaign is politically motivated and politics shouldn't mix with football.

The "Diversity Is Strength" campaign was originally unveiled by the Canadian Football League last summer. The campaign was rolled out ahead of schedule in response to riots and racial violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Rob Bagg was one of many players wearing the Diversity Is Strength shirt during the team's game against Calgary on Aug. 19, 2018. (Matt Smith/The Canadian Press)

"As long as there's a good attitude about everything, I don't think politics has anything to do with it," said Hughes.

"When you're in a locker room there's lots of diversity, especially here in Canada," he said. "There's a lot of diversity in everything."

"This game of football is a great example of how diversity can be strength."

With files from CBC Radio's The Morning Edition