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Why CrossFit devotees leaving the brand behind is such a big deal

From gym owners to big-name athletes, CrossFit acolytes are breaking ties over the brand’s response to Black Lives Matter.

CrossFit, which black acolytes say “lacks diversity and doesn’t represent people of color well,” is losing devotees over the former CEO’s insensitive Black Lives Matter comments.
SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

CrossFit is known for its diehard fans. While many workout regimens have cult-like adherents, CrossFit still manages to stand out. Proponents have been known to vomit into large tires after workouts involving throwing those tires around, and then come back again the next day. The pain they willingly put themselves through with small groups of other devoted fans forges deep bonds within the community. Now, the company is losing acolytes right and left.

Since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police and the global protests that have followed, companies across industries have found themselves in the middle of a reckoning. Consumers have demanded that brands take real action on racial inequality rather than just posting platitudes on Instagram. CrossFit didn’t even do that, remaining silent for over a week after Floyd’s death, which some in the community found disconcerting and even damning.

Founder Greg Glassman then outraged people further when he wrote a controversial tweet about Floyd, comparing Floyd’s killing and the subsequent uprising to the coronavirus. Then, he made offensive comments while on a call with CrossFit gym owners (the audio of which was leaked to BuzzFeed), including, “We’re not mourning for George Floyd — I don’t think me or any of my staff are.” Glassman “retired” from his role as CEO on the evening of June 8 after backlash in the community grew, but at least 1,200 gyms of 15,000 so far have still threatened to pull their affiliations with the company.

High-level trainers, athletes, and owners have resigned, vowed to disaffiliate from the brand, or spoken out, including past CrossFit Games winners like Katrin Davidsdottir, who owes her career and lucrative brand partnerships to CrossFit. Reebok, Rogue Fitness, and other brands cut ties with CrossFit. And Glassman retains ownership in the brand, meaning that even if he is out as CEO, he still earns money from the enterprise.

CrossFit and its sometimes contentious founder have weathered other controversies but for the most part have seemed untouchable. The demand for systemic change amplified by the recent Black Lives Matter protests, however, have made this scandal seem more dire for the company, forcing actual action. And CrossFit has so far done everything wrong.

“Nothing has ever happened to these guys,” says Maillard Howell, a co-founder of Dean Crossfit in Brooklyn, which he says is the largest black-owned CrossFit gym in New York City. “But it’s been brewing for quite some time.”

CrossFit’s history is littered with controversies about LGBTQ rights, guns, and race

From its inception, CrossFit has been polarizing. Glassman, an outspoken libertarian, founded the workout in 2000 after spending the ’90s getting kicked out of gyms where he worked as a personal trainer, according to a 2013 Inc. profile. He ended up teaching his quirky method of functional fitness techniques to the Santa Cruz sheriff’s department, and the brand forged a strong connection to the law enforcement and military communities. Dave Castro, the new CEO who has been with Glassman since the early days, is a former Navy SEAL. Some of the workouts are dubbed “hero” workouts and honor military and first responders who died in the line of duty.

A CrossFit program stipulates a different routine each day, called WODs, or “workouts of the day.” Gyms that feature the methodology are called “boxes,” with none of the fancy bells and whistles you’d find at upscale gyms. It uses basic equipment like kettlebells, ropes, and sandbags, with the exercises reminiscent of calisthenics and PE class — burpees, pull-ups, push-ups, box jumps.

Gyms that use the CrossFit name are called affiliates and they pay $3,000 per year. It’s not as strict as a franchise arrangement, meaning they can use their own logos and individualize their methods. Before this current controversy, there were more than 15,000.

CrossFit devotees are fanatical, and the brand has built a loyal community that views it as a lifestyle, not just a workout. Like SoulCycle and yoga, it’s become almost a religion for its practitioners, as Tara Isabella Burton wrote at Vox in 2018. CrossFit is aggressive when it comes to protecting its IP and its reputation, and has sued researchers for faulty conclusions about the workout’s injury risk. Glassman has been evangelical about touting CrossFit’s benefits for the prevention of obesity and diabetes, and has clashed with traditional fitness organization gatekeepers and Big Soda, which has funded training organizations and health and medical nonprofits.

CrossFit also hosts the CrossFit Games, a televised annual event that has had Reebok as a sponsor for the past decade. It has worked closely with Rogue Fitness to provide equipment for CrossFit boxes. The Games, and CrossFit generally, have given rise to a whole mini-economy of brands and athletes that owe their livelihoods to the concept.

A CrossFit competition in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images

Through the years, CrossFit has weathered some controversies. In 2018, it fired one of its original executives, Russell Berger, after he made anti-LGBTQ comments and called Pride festivals a “sin.” That same year, it finally overturned its policy forbidding transgender people from competing in the division in which they identify.

In 2016, a month after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, CrossFit announced that the winners of its CrossFit Games would be receiving Glock handguns. The backlash was swift, with a petition circulated. Reebok put out the statement: “While we understand CrossFit’s foundations are tied to military and first responders, we do not agree with this decision, particularly in light of current events in the United States.” Castro was unapologetic, responding, “Unless the state and federal laws regarding gun ownership in California and the U.S. change in the next week, then no, nothing is changing.”

The brand’s devotees do skew white, as scrolling through CrossFit’s social feeds makes clear. “I have always said that CrossFit lacks diversity and doesn’t represent people of color well within HQ and in the community,” says Christina Spencer, the black owner of Junction City CrossFit in Kansas, who has been an affiliate since 2012 after being introduced to the concept several years prior while on a deployment in the military.

CrossFit has even had problems with outright racist messaging in the past. In 2013, there was a backlash after CrossFit HQ shared a blog post on social media that was written by a group that believed in “race realism,” a concept embraced by former Ku Klux Klan top leader David Duke. The brand apologized. This year, it reposted a meme (now deleted) of a member next to a sign reading: “Some guy eats a bat halfway around the world and now I can’t go to CrossFit,” referring to the origins of Covid-19.

Glassman has also been vocal about disagreeing with coronavirus lockdown policies.

Black Lives Matter helps bring CrossFit’s issues with racism to the fore

On June 6, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tweeted a message that racism is a public health issue, along with the Black Lives Matter hashtag. Glassman replied in a tweet that is still posted: “It’s FLOYD-19.” The next day he tweeted: “Your failed model quarantined us and now you’re going to model a solution to racism? George Floyd’s brutal killing sparked riots nationally. Quarantine alone is accompanied in every age and under all political regimes by an undercurrent of suspicion, distrust, and riots. Thanks!” It seemed like he was blaming the Covid-19 quarantines for the “riots” (most of which were actually peaceful protests) that followed Floyd’s killing.

In the meantime, a Glassman apology didn’t come until a full day later, via CrossFit’s Twitter account, saying in part, “I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday. My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.” He went on to apologize and explain he was trying to criticize the IHME’s quarantine policies. He ended with: “Please hear me when I say, we stand by our community to fight for justice. I care about you, our community, and I am here for you.”

But it was too late for some important partners. After these comments, Reebok, which has had a partnership with CrossFit since 2011, sponsoring the CrossFit Games and making branded apparel, canceled negotiations to renew its contract. (It will honor its contract through the 2020 CrossFit Games.) Rogue Fitness, a company that makes workout equipment, also strongly condemned the company and will be reconsidering partnerships. Reebok just signed on to sponsor Rogue’s Invitational, a previously CrossFit-sanctioned competition, prompting fans to wonder if perhaps this was a new guard forming without CrossFit.

But what was unknown at the time of his first tweet was that Glassman had had a Zoom call with several CrossFit affiliate owners a few hours before his controversial tweet. BuzzFeed obtained a recording of it and published excerpts the day after the apology. On the call, Glassman doubles down on his assertion that he wasn’t mourning for Floyd. “Can you tell me why I should mourn for him? Other than that it’s the white thing to do — other than that, give me another reason,” he said.

Later that day, CrossFit published a long note on its site, titled, “Why Didn’t CrossFit Just Say Something?” The company apologized for waiting so long to vocally support the black community, but offered no concrete plans for how it would support its black members going forward. An excerpt:

“It is rare for us to speak on these types of issues. We struggled the past few weeks because we allowed our desire to get it right to paralyze us. Tackling social justice issues of this magnitude is not our strength as a company, because our varied points of view sometimes devolve into dysfunction. But we can agree on two things: We are a team dedicated to fitness and health. This team is anti-racist. Therefore, we are committed to scrutinizing ourselves internally, continuing to listen to the community, and taking actions in support of change.”

The statement was widely seen as rambling and unfocused. “Successful crisis management requires both effective action and communication to happen simultaneously,” says Melissa Agnes, a crisis management strategist and author. “[CrossFit’s] statement doesn’t do this. It has a whole lot of excuses.”

Later that evening, CrossFit announced that Glassman would be retiring and longtime lieutenant and director of the CrossFit Games, Dave Castro, would step in as CEO. Shortly after, BuzzFeed published another story with a video of Castro at a 2019 press conference sitting at a podium with a row of athletes, all of whom were white. A reporter asked how he planned to add diversity to the roster. Castro ignored the question.

In a statement to BuzzFeed, Castro said, “The 2019 CrossFit Games panel in question was to discuss the day’s events, and the question wasn’t relevant to the topics of discussion at the panel.” A CrossFit spokesperson also told BuzzFeed: “He’s Brown and Mexican-American, so a question about lack of diversity might have initially caused some confusion.” CrossFit did not respond to a request for comment from Vox for this story.

Early on Thursday morning, Castro tweeted: “Thanks to all those showing support to CF in these tough times and having the belief in us to earn your trust back.” On his Instagram stories, he reposted several messages of support, stating, “We are in.” CrossFit’s account posted the admonition: “Work out today.” One person responded: “Was this tweet scheduled for, um, last year?”

How CrossFit is managing the fallout with angry community members

Sunday, before the leaked Zoom call had been made public, black box owners joined a call with Glassman and others at CrossFit HQ. Howell, of Dean Crossfit, was on the call, as was another co-owner, Charmel Rodgers.

“When pressed on, ‘Why didn’t he say anything? Why had he been silent up to that point?’ [Glassman] had no answer for that. He was repeatedly pressed on his stance on BLM and he didn’t say anything about that. He was just silent, he never answered,” says Rodgers. “You can be supportive of the jobs that police officers have to do and ... at the same time want them to do better. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Castro was asked on Twitter and on CrossFit’s site to address this as well, but the brand has not come out with a strong statement in support for Black Lives Matter or specifically how it will support the community going forward. Still, many commenters seemed supportive of the brand. “If someone inside the CF universe cannot deal and accept to live with multiple opinions on a subject like race, let them go! They do not belong here. It should not be accepted to call someone racist just because of a different vision on race that honors every person. It is an electoral year and the pressure to surrender will only rise. Keep your DNA CrossFit and you will be stronger in one year then you are today!” wrote one.

One high-profile box owner, Alyssa Royse of Rocket CrossFit (now Rocket Community Fitness) in Seattle, publicized her misgivings about the company and posted a disturbing email she received from Glassman before he stepped down, after she told him she was disaffiliating. She wrote: “CrossFit has stayed silent for too long as our country is at a time of reckoning for centuries of systemic racism. They have been called out by countless gyms and athletes and brands alike for their silence.” She raised long-simmering issues about her concerns around CrossFit’s brand identity, communication problems, and “moral ambiguity.”

In response, Glassman wrote in part, “You’re doing your best to brand us as racist and you know it’s bullshit. That makes you a really shitty person. Do you understand that? You’ve let your politics warp you into something that strikes me as wrong to the point of evil. I am ashamed of you.” Royse had no further comment for this story, preferring that black owners of black boxes be heard at this time.

CrossFit Games champion Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir is one of the high-profile athletes cutting ties with the brand.
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Howell says Dean Crossfit is considering disaffiliating from CrossFit, and they are not alone, according to a circulating spreadsheet, which indicates that hundreds of owners are also considering dropping their affiliation with the company. For Howell and his partners, remaining a part of the brand is dependent on the company meeting certain “deliverables,” including creating a diverse board, establishing a black scholarship fund, and creating fitness programs in correctional facilities and schools in marginalized neighborhoods. These requests have not yet received a response from CrossFit HQ. They hope that CrossFit will engage black owners and members in the process.

Spencer, the owner of the Kansas box, will keep her affiliation until she sees how Castro and HQ respond. “If you want to see change, we have to be a part of it. I can’t ask CrossFit to make changes if I’m not an affiliate,” she says. “I would love to see an effort on HQ’s part to ensure that they have a diverse HQ staff, that they show people of color on their Instagram and Facebook social media more regularly and not just savior stories — someone who was in prison or living in a core part of a city. I think this could be a learning opportunity and a chance for them to grow and become better for it.”

CrossFit has lost crucial support of dozens of brands, hundreds of practitioners, and several prominent Games athletes. Since Castro’s appointment, Davidsdottir has doubled down on her criticism, writing on Instagram: “I am disappointed, to say the least, with the solution that was provided and I do not see change. ... Doesn’t Greg Glassman still own 100% of CrossFit?” It’s clearly the biggest crisis in the company’s history. One redditor on the CrossFit subreddit wrote: “Removed CrossFit from my tinder profile. In all seriousness, I’m happy the community is standing together.”

But CrossFit obviously still has the support of thousands of people, and its brand equity is strong, according to Agnes, the crisis management pro. This split is evident on a post on Morning Chalk Up, a website devoted to CrossFit news. It characterized the community as “divided and angry.”

Dean CrossFit’s owners do not have a great deal of confidence that Castro’s leadership will produce change in the organization.

“Castro is Glassman’s right hand. This is all smoke and mirrors,” says Howell. “I have no faith in Castro, and he’s going to play the game and pretend way better than Glassman. We tried to make it as clear as possible that they need to spend some resources in the community.”