You do not cross CrossFit. As many in the media have learned, the company behind the fitness craze is not afraid to retaliate—through its enforcers in "informational weaponry," Russell Greene and Russell Berger; its massive social-media following; or, if all else fails, the courts. I knew because I'd read about it and had seen their work on Outside's Facebook wall. But it wasn't real to me. It is now.
Outside has been a focus of CrossFit's wrath since we began reporting on the injured-participant-led backlash in 2013. But I first became Greene's target when I reported on a story about CrossFit's new rival, the NPFL (now known as the NPGL). In the story, NPGL founder Tony Budding said he wanted to create an event that was more spectator-friendly than CrossFit's flagship competition, the CrossFit Games.
Greene took offense to that line. "Tony's statement that the CrossFit Games aren't a spectator-friendly sport is completely false, and deserves critical analysis," Greene wrote. Fair enough. We'd pointed out that "some would argue that the CrossFit Games have been a huge success, selling out tickets, drawing a half-million viewers on ESPN, and winning title sponsorship from Reebok." The story wasn't about taking sides, but about informing readers of the NPGL's existence and what it planned to do.
I suppose I should've remembered that encounter when I applied for a press pass to this year's CrossFit Games. Held annually since 2007, the Games are what makes CrossFit a sport rather than a training regimen. To get to the finals at the StubHub arena in Carson, California, individual CrossFit athletes and teams must make it past open and regional competitions. About 100 men and 100 women face off in a three-day strongman-style competition (think: overhead squats, burpees, and rowing), where CrossFit dubs the winners "Fittest on Earth" and hands them a check for $275,000.
I'd spent the past two-and-a-half years reporting on obstacle racing, a sport whose meteoric growth was greatly fueled by CrossFitters looking for a place to test their strength. I wanted to see what a straight-up CrossFit competition was like. Instead, my press pass was denied.
"Outside Online has published headlines and articles about CrossFit and the CrossFit Games that lead us to question Outside Magazine and Outside Online's editorial intentions," said the email from CrossFit Press, which arrived after we reached out to Greene. The email listed four Outside articles to which CrossFit had taken offense: a report on a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that suggested CrossFit has a 16 percent injury rate, a report on the subsequent lawsuit between CrossFit and the journal (published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association), the NPFL story, and another story digging deeper into injury statistics.
No mention was made, however, of the stories we've published trumpeting CrossFit's stars like four-time CrossFit Games champion Rich Froning, pointing readers to the regimen's best boxes, or even promoting CrossFit-inspired training plans. Outside has covered all aspects of the fitness trend since it began.
With that in mind, we asked CrossFit to reevaluate its decision. CrossFit is important to us and to many of our readers. We were eager to cover the games. Again, we were rejected. This time, our email didn't even elicit a response.
Denying our press pass is like the NFL writing, "Dear ESPN, We can't let you cover the Super Bowl, because you covered the traumatic-brain-injury concerns of NFL players." By CrossFit's logic, every major media outlet in the United States should be blackballed, from the New York Times to USA Today, because we've all covered CrossFit injuries. Deadspin must certainly be on CrossFit's s*** list after publishing this gem about the NSCA debacle:
It exposes the fitness company far more effectively than the NSCA study ever did. In the lawsuit, all of CrossFit's neuroses emerge, as does its inner asshole.
The press-pass rejection not only made CrossFit look thin-skinned, it also made it look like the company has something to hide. And barring journalists from something is about the best way to ensure they'll pursue a story. On Thursday evening, I bought a $50 pass to Friday's CrossFit Games and went to see the competition for myself.
StubHub Center, where the event is held, is composed of several venues. There are soccer, tennis, and track stadiums, as well as a tent village where vendors like Badass WOD Wear and nonprofits like Barbells for Boobs hawk their goods.
When spectators walked into the soccer stadium on Friday morning, their eyes lit up. They actually said, "Wow!" The place had been transformed into the world's biggest box, with THE 2014 REEBOK CROSSFIT GAMES printed across end zones and 15 metal trusses cutting the field in half.
I took photos of at least 10 people against that backdrop. They came from all over—Pittsburgh, Florida, Atlanta, Minnesota, Mexico. Most of them seemed to follow a dress code. Booty shorts for the ladies, nylon board shorts for the men, T-shirts repping their respective boxes, and minimalist Reebok CrossFit shoes. The stadium floor was empty, although the Jumbotrons showed a competition taking place: a relay run with competitors tethered together.
Perhaps Greene feared we'd find the games weren’t spectator-friendly. That's because they aren't. Not even to avid CrossFitters. Friday's first two events—the relay run and an erg-jump rope-run combo—were held in the driveway outside the soccer stadium, where few people could tell what was going on.
Some spectators even considered climbing the palm trees lining the road to improve their vantage point over the thousands of others trying to get a glimpse of their friends and favorite athletes. "I'm a huge Rich Froning fan," a 28-year-old CrossFitter from San Diego told me when I asked why he came to the games. "He said this might be his last year as an individual" competitor. It was tough to catch a glimpse of his hero, though, behind two solid rows of standing people.
"Why didn't they do it in the stadium where people can actually see? I paid $200 to see nothing!" said an athlete from Utah as she stood on an empty Pelican case used to house the camera filming the event. She wasn't mad about it, though; she came for the experience and to support friends who were competing. In that way, she was like everybody else there.
The CrossFit Games are like a religious gathering cum high-school track meet, where everyone in the stands (or on the street) is either a zealot or knows a competitor. "This is like a Mecca for CrossFitters," a Canadian CrossFitter told me.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with being at a religious gathering/high-school track meet. In fact, that's what makes the CrossFit Games—and CrossFit itself—special. It brings people of diverse backgrounds together to celebrate health and fitness. I met three generations of people at the games who might as well have been wearing kettlebell halos; they were the nicest sports spectators I've ever encountered, happy to talk about the event and the people close to them who were competing. Just like my mom at my high-school swim meets.
CrossFit should embrace its special community. The rabid attacks on media outlets and researchers suggest that CrossFit is insecure with itself. New competition like the NPGL should energize CrossFit rather than scare the organization into harassing reporters who introduce its rivals. As for that NSCA lawsuit, CrossFit should take a page out of its own book and relearn the art of the spin.
Back in 2005, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman knew how to handle a press that questioned his methods. Just before Christmas, the New York Times published an article about CrossFit's propensity to induce injuries, including rhabdomyolysis, a serious condition that can lead to kidney damage. Glassman’s response: Embrace the danger.
CrossFit had already rolled out a mascot named Uncle Rhabdo, a clown "whose kidneys have spilled onto the floor presumably due to rhabdomyolysis," the Times reported. Glassman also wrote an article titled "CrossFit-Induced Rhabdo," in which he "soberly explained the circumstances of the six CrossFit-related cases he knew about, outlined ways affiliates could lower the likelihood of injury, and announced he would add a rhabdomyolysis discussion to his weekend seminars and to the website," Inc. reported. PR crisis met head-on. Crisis averted.
Sometime over the past nine years, CrossFit, the sport of strength, got weak.
The tiniest amount of criticism sets its enforcers off on a rampage, and it's affecting CrossFit's most devout adherents. You've got a great thing going, CrossFit, with amazing people in your ranks. Bring back the old CrossFit that faced controversy with honesty and humor. Even better: Heed one of your own favorite sayings and HTFU.