Can CrossFit strong-arm critics into keeping quiet?
Can CrossFit strong-arm critics into keeping quiet?

CrossFit’s Sour Sense of Humor

The fitness giant works hard to polish their public image—to the extent of confronting or even suing those who criticize CrossFit on social media. What gives?

Can CrossFit strong-arm critics into keeping quiet?

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CrossFit has turned the Internet into fitness gold. The company, which made $50 million in 2012, spreads its grueling daily workouts free via its website, builds camaraderie among gym members with specially tailored social media apps, and encourages an endless stream of YouTube videos and photos of CrossFitters striking athletic poses. It’s almost become the Facebook of fitness.

But the company is less tolerant when it comes to the kind of criticism and parody that’s an Internet staple.

Elgin Mones discovered this when YouTube shut down his YouTube channel in late April, after three of his videos, which poke fun at CrossFit, received copyright complaints. Mones, a Maryland attorney and weightlifter, had cultivated a following for his channel, “Exercises in Futility,” which featured workout videos, including ones from CrossFit, coupled with his mocking commentary. The CrossFit videos were the targets of the copyright complaints.

“CrossFit is notorious for doing this—shutting people down because they speak poorly of CrossFit,” Mones complained in a YouTube video he posted shortly after the channel was shut down in late April.

The treatment Mones got is tame compared to what some other CrossFit critics describe: threats to “out” anonymous writers, saber rattling about lawsuits, and packets of unflattering information mailed to an employer.

One of those critics was behind the now-defunct parody Facebook page and Twitter account known as Ben Smith’s Dad. An avid CrossFitter, the poster, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, started the accounts as a joke aimed at a friend who lost a CrossFit competition to Ben Smith, a star athlete who regularly qualifies for the televised CrossFit Games. Posing as an uber-macho CrossFit fanatic, BSD’s postings quickly gained thousands of followers. What he didn’t know is that CrossFit’s headquarters was apparently tracking him down.

He learned that following what he now admits was an ill-advised posting. The day of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, he sent out a message joking that maybe the marathon had decided to spice things up with a few obstacles, a la Tough Mudder.

Soon after, he got a call from Russell Berger, one of CrossFit’s main spokespeople, said the man. Berger, he said, told the man that he should shut down the Twitter and Facebook accounts and post an apology to Ben Smith’s family. If he didn’t, his name might come out. A film crew might show up at his job.

Later that day, he said, he got an e-mail from someone else at CrossFit’s headquarters saying he would like to meet face-to-face, and suggesting he could drop by his work or gym. The man behind Ben Smith’s Dad took it as a thinly veiled threat. He shut down the accounts and wrote the apology. “Something that was so small and trivial in my mind—that was a joke that gained a following—brought their full wrath to the point that they threatened my employment,” said the man.

Asked to comment, Berger’s e-mail response was “No thanks.”

File all this under CrossFit’s aggressive defense of its public image. Company representatives patrol Web sites, weighing in on comment sections. They have blasted scientists that publish unflattering information. An Ohio gym recently filed a lawsuit alleging Ohio State University scientists made up data about CrossFit injuries.

It’s not entirely clear CrossFit filed the complaint with YouTube that got Mones’ videos yanked, since the company isn’t talking and YouTube wouldn’t say who claimed a copyright foul.

But CrossFit could face an uphill battle proving that the videos violate their copyright, said Julie Ahrens, director of Copyright and Fair Use at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. Commentary and criticism enjoys legal protection as free speech—known as “fair use”—even if that might mean using a copy of someone else’s video. It depends partly on whether someone is adding to the video to give it a different meaning, or if, for example, they were just copying it to sell their own workout video. “If you’re making fun of the video … in concept that’s a pretty solid fair use concept,” she said.

Mones wrote in an e-mail that people can expect more CrossFit critiques from him. He defended the previous videos as legally protected free speech. The end of his original YouTube channel cost Mones more than half the 36,000 subscribers he had. But he said the publicity has also gotten him more attention, adding hundreds of subscribers to his new channel every day. “Shirt sales and views have reached all-time highs,” he wrote.

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