In the wake of the weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va., the Canadian Football League has taken a united stance to send what it calls a “not so subtle message.”
Its new “Diversity is Strength” campaign was moved up from a planned fall launch as part of the CFL’s Canada 150 celebrations after the league and its alumni association decided to expedite its release.
It started in an off-season meeting between marketing vice-president Christina Litz, communications director Paulo Senra and licensing consultant Jim Neish, when the league created the idea for a late-season T-shirt that “paid respect to the progressive history of the CFL.”
It was Litz’s idea, spawned from listening to the news in her car on Saturday, that prompted the beginning of discussions with other senior staff — including commissioner Randy Ambrosie — to launch the campaign early.
“It really intersects beautifully with who we are as a nation. It just seemed like the perfect moment to remind everybody about the power of diversity and how much it has done to make our game great and our country great,” Ambrosie said Monday.
By the time Sunday’s Week 8 finale between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and BC Lions rolled around, CFL social media manager Max Rosenberg had agreed to change his flights to get to the game early and distribute the shirts, which Litz delivered to him with her kids early that morning in a sprint from Toronto to Hamilton.
The shirts, which read “Diversity is Strength” on the front and featured the names of 32 different players from its history (past and present) on the back, were then worn by players and staff on both teams.
“This is who we are. I think our league in many respects is one of the most Canadian institutions in the land,” Ambrosie added. “That was what was on my mind when I saw everything unfold (in Charlottesville).”
In a league whose athletes are majority-American, the violence in Charlottesville hit close to home.
“I see the diversity and the acceptance of the people here, and me, coming from the USA, facing the aggressiveness and inequality I have in my own country, that is being perpetuated by the president and the politicians, who are saying America is the greatest country, and it’s a lie,” said Toronto Argonauts defensive back and Memphis, Tenn.-native Cassius Vaughn on Monday.
In 2015, 64 per cent of the league’s players attended schools in the United States while more than 55 per cent were born there, according to data.
“We need to come together and push narratives of positivity, inclusion and acceptance,” said 32-year-old defensive back Matt Black. “We have more in common as people than we have differences. It’s an absolute shame that these racists take the public spotlight and use it as a platform to grow hatred.”
Black, who grew up in Toronto to a Jamaican father and German mother before marrying an American, says Canada and the CFL aren’t immune to intolerance.
“The moment we take ourselves for granted, think we’re better than the next country, then that’s a moment of weakness,” he said.
Vaughn, 29, says he’s always felt welcome in Canada in a way many don’t in the United States.
“When I step foot in this country, as a man, I feel the togetherness far more here than in my own country. History has shown that this is just something the USA does,” he said. “The ignorance, the white privilege that is accepted in the USA, it’s protected by laws and it becomes part of what some people say and think.”
The CFL isn’t alone in its anti-hate activism in the sports world, though.
On the weekend, the Detroit Red Wings promised to explore “every possible legal action” associated with the use of its logo by the ‘Detroit Right Wings,’ a group who plastered it to their shields in Charlottesville. Others, including LeBron James, took to Twitter to voice their opposition.
The campaign also raises ethical concerns, as the league promotes itself off of the negative events, according to marketing experts Brian Cooper and Alan Middleton.
“It’s a fine line when you’re talking about any subject matter that is a hot point within society. You have to be very, very careful,” said Cooper, a dual citizen and marketing executive and former president with the Toronto Argonauts and vice-president with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.
“They’re trying to wrap themselves in the flag. The league itself is diverse but North American football is really just North American. Football, the NFL and the CFL, they’re not that global.”
Middleton, a marketing professor with the Schulich School of Business, credits the league for recognizing the need to celebrate diversity in the off-season and moving quickly to adjust over the weekend.
“The only downside is: is it just a slogan or is it something they enforce wherever they can?” he said. “The vulnerability of taking a high-profile position is you better deliver on it.”
Ambrosie insists the league will live up to its new campaign.
“This is an important moment for all of us and I can’t say that I feel more strongly about anything than I do about this issue,” he said. “We all owe it to ourselves to make this a topic of discussion and celebrate our diversity with young Canadians. We need to make this a part of our ongoing conversation.”
With files from Mark Zwolinski