There’s a Schism Happening Inside CrossFit
When CEO Greg Glassman retired after making inflammatory comments about George Floyd, many in the fitness community weren't surprised. But where the popular fitness business goes from here is anyone's guess.
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When gym owner Alyssa Royse reached out to the CrossFit leadership on June 3 to let them know she was disappointed by CrossFit leadership’s response to COVID and social unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, she hoped her message would at least be received respectfully.
CrossFit, a fitness company founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman and his ex-wife, Lauren Jenai, has grown to more than 15,000 affiliated gyms over the past two decades. Each affiliate pays $3,000 a year to be able to use the CrossFit name in their branding and to receive promotion on the CrossFit website. The company partners with Reebok to host the annual CrossFit Games, where hundreds of athletes compete for the Fittest on Earth title. For years, CrossFit profited from its affiliate model while gym owners enjoyed the freedom of being independent business owners operating under a widely recognized brand.
As hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest police violence against Black people in recent weeks, many fitness companies spoke out in support of the movement. Nike released an ad addressing America’s history of racism, while Peloton released a statement ending with “Black Lives Matter” and made a $500,000 donation to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. CrossFit, on the other hand, stayed silent for more than a week, despite calls from gym owners and athletes urging it to make a statement.
The company’s long silence prompted Royse, a longtime CrossFit gym owner, who is White, to send her email to CrossFit leadership, where she also explained her inclination to disaffiliate. She received a response from Glassman directly, which she posted on her gym’s blog along with her initial letter. In it, Glassman calls Royse “a really shitty person,” ending the email by telling her, “I am ashamed of you.”
Royse had thought hard about parting ways with CrossFit. Gyms that disaffiliate must rebrand and find members on their own, without the benefit of the CrossFit name or promotion on their website, all of which can be time-consuming and costly. But Royse says Glassman’s response confirmed to her that she’d made the right decision.
“At that moment, any hope I had that anything could be heard or changed just vanished,” Royse says. “It was profoundly sad.” Royse says she didn’t expect more than a couple hundred people to read her blog post detailing the interaction. On June 6, however, after flippant tweets from Glassman regarding George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police and the relationship between systemic racism and health care drew widespread condemnation, Royse’s post went viral. (Glassman’s Twitter account appears to have since been deactivated.) The next day, Reebok announced it was ending its partnership with CrossFit at the end of the year, and more CrossFit gym owners began stating their intentions to disaffiliate. Glassman apologized for his tweet that same day, saying: “I, CrossFit HQ, and the CrossFit community will not stand for racism. 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.”
On June 9, BuzzFeed News published a recording of a Zoom call that occurred shortly before Glassman posted the tweet in which he told affiliate owners that he didn’t mourn Floyd. Glassman announced the same day that he would retire as CEO but retain ownership of the company. “On Saturday I created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members,” read a statement from Glassman on the CrossFit website. The position of CrossFit CEO was temporarily passed to Dave Castro, one of Glassman’s deputies and director of the CrossFit Games. CrossFit headquarters also released its own statement on June 9, apologizing for Glassman’s remarks and the company’s silence on the death of George Floyd. “The Black community is hurting around the globe,” the post read. “The community called upon us to speak, and we improperly answered. That was a mistake. We heard you and got in our own way while trying to figure out how to convey our message truthfully without following a trend, shaming, or creating division.”
The controversy didn’t subside. On June 20, The New York Times reported that Glassman allegedly routinely sexually harassed employees and CrossFit athletes and that a level of sexism was pervasive in CrossFit offices, allegations that Glassman denied through CrossFit spokespeople. (Glassman did not respond to a request from Outside for additional comment on the sexual harassment allegations.) Four days later, Glassman announced that he will sell the company to Eric Roza, owner of a CrossFit gym in Boulder, Colorado, for an undisclosed sum. Roza would also take over the CEO position.
Those who have watched CrossFit’s meteoric rise from a boutique workout program to an international phenomenon and a powerful player in the fitness world were hardly surprised to read about Glassman’s recent behavior and comments. His abrasive interpersonal style has long been tolerated and, in some cases, seen as a personification of the brand by gym owners and colleagues alike. This time, however, even before the report on sexual harassment surfaced, some CrossFit gym owners and participants felt that Glassman had gone too far. Others noted that the cultural differences within the CrossFit community ran deeper than Glassman’s leadership.
Royse has felt a tension between the culture at her gym and the larger CrossFit world’s culture for years. Because of this, she says she worked to differentiate herself from public perceptions of the brand—in the company’s early days, Glassman found enthusiastic acolytes among law enforcement officers, active-duty military personnel, and veterans. One of Glassman’s earliest contracts was to train the Santa Cruz, California, sheriff’s department, and Glassman intentionally brought on affiliate gyms with ties to the Navy SEAL community. “No SEAL is going to do the fat people’s workout. But the fat people will do the SEAL workout,” Glassman told Maxim in 2015.
By contrast, Royse focused on creating a gender-inclusive and body-positive culture at her gym, something she says hasn’t been a priority for CrossFit. Transgender athletes, for example, were forced to compete at the CrossFit Games in the gender division they were assigned at birth, and Royse was part of an effort to lobby CrossFit to change its stance. (The policy was lifted in 2018.) “We built the reputation of our gym by fairly directly saying, ‘We’re not CrossFit,’” Royse says. She thinks there are a lot of CrossFit gyms out there like hers—different from CrossFit HQ and the earlier affiliate gyms. “It creates a bit of a culture war,” Royse says. “You can feel that tension. That tension is really, really real.”
CrossFit’s cultural rifts are becoming more apparent as gym owners and athletes react to Glassman’s recent comments. Dale Saran, a Marine Corps veteran and a lawyer, started participating in CrossFit workouts when he was stationed in Afghanistan. In 2007, after his service, he became an affiliate gym owner before working for CrossFit as its general counsel for over eight years. (He has since left the company.) He told Outside that he views the recent outrage over Glassman’s tweet and claims that he is racist as fundamentally “unserious.”
“How much is enough for the new Woke Thought-Guardians?” Saran wrote in a defense of Glassman posted on his blog. “You either start screaming RACISM! and demonize and denounce every cop in the country—or you’re cancelled. Is Glassman supposed to wade into the fray and choose between his ‘woke’ Affiliates and his police Affiliates—the latter being the ones who helped build CrossFit.” Saran also wrote that he misses the “familial nature” of the early CrossFit community, when CrossFit “transcended politics.”
For Lady Velez, a CrossFit coach, that familial and welcoming quality of CrossFit was a revelation. “The first day that I tried it, something changed,” Velez says. “I felt welcome.”
Velez discovered CrossFit during her first year of medical school in 2013. She got her M.D. from Stony Brook University in 2018 and ultimately decided to pursue a career as a CrossFit and competitive-weight-lifting coach.
As hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to protest police violence against Black people in recent weeks, many fitness companies spoke out in support of the movement.
One of the things Velez appreciated most about her CrossFit experience was that, as a woman, she was encouraged to be as strong as she could be. “I’m originally from Ecuador. The concept of women lifting heavy things is very taboo in my culture,” Velez says. “I never felt that there was any sexism. It felt really revolutionary.”
The overwhelmingly positive experience she had with CrossFit is one reason why CrossFit’s initial silence to the protests was so upsetting to Velez. “I feel fucking devastated and heartbroken,” she says. “CrossFit changed my life.” For Velez, there is a disconnect, too, between CrossFit and Glassman’s mission to fix health care and the lack of response to the protests. (In 2017, CrossFit launched CrossFit Health with the mission to expose corruption in healthcare and help solve chronic illnesses.) “If you cannot recognize that racism is a barrier to wellness, how, Greg Glassman, can you say that you are addressing health?” she asks.
Systemic racism, Velez maintains, has health implications, something she hopes to help address as a coach at Strength for All, a new sliding-scale, nonprofit barbell club and fitness center in Brooklyn. She hopes Strength for All can be a model for accessible fitness.
Creating a more inclusive fitness environment has been on Taryn Pascal and SayKay Brown’s minds as well. In May, as the George Floyd protests took off, Pascal, a former CrossFit participant, and Brown, who owns a Michigan CrossFit gym, began posting “Hero WODs” on Instagram to honor Black people killed by police officers. (WODs, or Workouts of the Day, are a staple of CrossFit, and Hero WODs are named in honor of a deceased hero, usually someone in the military or law enforcement.) Pascal and Brown, who met through Instagram, found that they shared an interest in building a platform for Black strength athletes. For Brown and Pascal, both of whom are Black, creating WODs that honored Black people killed by police officers was one way they could bring the protests into their gyms. “Working out is our therapy,” Pascal says, “so why not find a way to incorporate the people who lost their lives?”
Although she is disappointed with CrossFit’s slow response to the protests, Brown’s gym won’t be disafilliating from the company. She is hesitant to take on the cost associated with re-branding, she says, and a nonprofit program that she runs is supported by the CrossFit Foundation, the company’s philanthropic branch. She also believes that disaffiliation is an empty gesture if it’s not paired with local efforts to foster inclusivity and diversity. One way that Brown tries to cultivate inclusion at her gym is through the flags she hangs on the wall: in addition to the pride flag, the transgender flag, the American flag, and the Pan-African flag, she has the thin blue line flag to honor law enforcement.
Despite the cultural shifts within individual CrossFit communities—and within American culture as a whole—to become more inclusive, CrossFit corporate leadership has often appeared resistant to these changes. At a press conference at the CrossFit Games last year, Castro was asked what, if any, plans he had for diversifying the roster of athletes. All of the athletes on the stage at the time were White. In a video of the interaction, Castro pauses for several seconds, glancing at the athletes. One of them shrugs and pats another on his back. You can hear audience members yelling, “Next question! Next question!” in the background.
Finally, Castro says, “Tomorrow morning, the first event will start at the water.” Audience members clap and cheer as the director, ignoring the question, continues to describe the events of the next day.
(When Outside later asked CrossFit for comment on the company’s diversity practices, a spokesperson from CrossFit said: “CrossFit is and always has been a collection of many different voices and backgrounds. That’s proven even more true as it has expanded around the world in the past 20 years. Thousands of affiliates—in the U.S. and across the world—recognize that ‘CrossFit’ means community and inclusive fitness, and they recognize their common mission to prevent and reverse chronic disease. That’s the unifying element of our culture.”)
Those who have watched CrossFit’s meteoric rise from a boutique workout program to an international phenomenon and a powerful player in the fitness world were hardly surprised to read about Glassman’s recent behavior and comments.
In another instance of cultural disconnect, Kurt Roderick, whose gym in Brooklyn is in the process of disaffiliating from CrossFit, recalled when Castro announced he would give a voucher for a Glock handgun to the winners of the 2016 CrossFit games. “Regardless of your stance on handguns, why would you give a handgun for a prize at a sporting event?” Roderick says. “It was a statement that just didn’t square well with me or my community.”
When Roderick, who is White, saw Glassman’s tweet about George Floyd and his response to Royse, he felt like it was time to disaffiliate from CrossFit. Many of Roderick’s gym members were actively participating in the protests, and Roderick says his coaches and athletes agreed that leaving CrossFit would be best for their community.
For CrossFit, the future is unclear. Roderick thinks a split may emerge between more progressive, formerly affiliated gyms who still practice CrossFit-like workouts and the increasingly conservative remaining CrossFit gyms. However, the company has announced a number of steps in recent days to address the criticism. On Instagram, it promised to commission an external review of diversity and inclusion at the CrossFit Games, among other measures. It has also announced plans to roll out an affiliate representative program to “facilitate communication between affiliates and CrossFit Headquarters.” In a statement posted on Twitter after the CrossFit sale was announced, new owner and CEO Roza wrote: “In the past weeks, divisive statements and allegations have left many members of our community struggling to reconcile our transformative experiences in the local box with what we’ve been reading online. My view is simple: Racism and sexism are abhorrent and will not be tolerated in CrossFit.”
For Roderick, the company’s statements on diversity made before the sale were all too little, too late. “They still have a long way to go,” Roderick says. “If others can help CrossFit HQ learn, that is great, but I am more focused on my gym and my community.”