The first ripples of damage to CrossFit after its CEO Greg Glassman’s controversial tweets on the Black Lives Matter movement were swift and immediate. Sportswear giant Reebok ended a longtime sponsorship with the fitness brand. Professional athletes like Rich Froning, Tia-Clair Toomey, and Noah Ohlsen, who compete in the annual CrossFit games, also cut ties with the fitness program.
But that was only the beginning. CrossFit-affiliated gyms across the country, where owners pay yearly funds to use the regime’s branding, began divesting from the corporate structure this weekend. These trainers say that their fitness centers will continue operating as stand-alone businesses untethered from the CrossFit name.
“A name is just a name,” Alan Shaw, who runs Rhapsody Gym in Charleston, South Carolina, with his husband Trinity Wheeler, told The Daily Beast the morning after they decided to disaffiliate. “I have a feeling that something greater is going to rise out of this. Actionable steps need to be taken, not just words. That’s what needs to happen not just in CrossFit but also the world at large.”
Todd Morris, the owner of Black Box NYC, declined to speak with The Daily Beast. But on Monday, the gym—which was founded in 2005 and is one of the first CrossFit affiliates—released a statement also condemning Glassman’s words and disaffiliating with his program.
This comes after Glassman replied to a tweet from The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation that partly read, “Racism is a Public Health Issue.”
“It’s FLOYD-19,” Glassman responded.
The CEO later apologized on his brand’s official Twitter account, writing, “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.”
Glassman also came under fire after Alyssa Royse, founder of Rocket CrossFit in Seattle, posted an email exchange with the founder. Royse sent a letter informing Glassman her gym would disaffiliate due to “an incoherent brand identify that is losing value, absent leadership at a time when leadership is most important, and a moral ambiguity that doesn’t jibe with the zeitgeist or our own values.”
Glassman responded with an impertinent email that began with, “I sincerely believe the quarantine has adversely impacted your mental health.”
“You think you’re more virtuous than we are,” Glassman wrote. “It’s disgusting. Your self-professed brand wizardry has been tolerated but never seen as actually thoughtful or effective, but certainly manipulative. 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 into something that strikes me as wrong to the point of evil. I am ashamed of you.”
Both Royse and Glassman did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment by time of publication; neither did CrossFit itself.
In a Medium post, sports scientist and CrossFit affiliate owner Mike Young accused Glassman of spouting coronavirus conspiracy theories during a Zoom conference call and saying, “I do not mourn George Floyd,” when asked about the company’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“He actually repeated that exact line several times. He also denied any notion that racism might exist in some police forces and he seemed to downplay racism at all.”
Shaw, the Charleston gym owner, spoke to The Daily Beast over the phone, while clients worked out in the background. Their “WOD” —workout of the day, in CrossFit-speak—was called Big Floyd, a set of repetitions created by Stacey Pugh. It goes on for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time Derek Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd.
Pugh, a 31-year-old trans school teacher from D.C. known as @BlackPowerCleans on Instagram, has been practicing CrossFit since 2012. “Whenever I tell people I do it, they say, ‘That’s a white activity,’” he said. “I want to highlight black people in the CrossFit community, because there’s not a lot of black folks who do it.”
After Ahmaud Arbery was shot while out running in Brunswick, Georgia in February, Pugh noticed friends on social media running 2.23 miles in honor of his life.
“I thought to myself, ‘Damn, CrossFit HQ will mobilize for a Hero workout for Ahmaud,’” Pugh said. “We always do workouts on Memorial Day, in the name of cancer, police officers, or firefighters, but there is not a lot of acknowledgement of the black lives that have been lost. Not just this year, but ever.”
“I don’t want to take away from soldiers,” Pugh added. “My dad’s a retired lieutenant colonel. I just want to say that if we can honor soldiers we can also say that the black community is important, and that we value and cherish them.”
Pugh posted the Big Floyd challenge before CrossFit made any official statement on the Black Lives Matter movement. In his Instagram post he wrote that it is “time to change and build the narrative that we wish to see as a CrossFit community.”
Pugh played Division I soccer at Kennesaw State University from 2006 to 2011. After he graduated and left the team, exercise couldn’t compare to the camaraderie he felt on the field. “Nothing made me as passionate,” Pugh said. “I was running, and it was so boring.” He hesitated when a former partner suggested try CrossFit. “There’s a stigma about it being kind of like a cult,” he said. “But I tried it, and I was hooked. The workouts matched the same adrenaline I got from soccer.”
Pugh said that he has a “complicated” relationship with CrossFit. “It’s a shame that marginalized communities have to create their own space to feel acknowledged,” he said. “You should go to the CrossFit Instagram handle and see equity on their Instagram page, their Facebook page. It’s just not there.”
There is not a lot of diversity in CrossFit. I’ve had this feeling for some time, and I think the silence of CrossFit now was the straw that broke the camel’s back
“I love doing this, I love CrossFit, and I think there is another workout that can make me feel as happy or as physically and mentally fit,” Pugh added. “But it’s conflicting, because I know the fitness world is super binary. There is not a lot of diversity in CrossFit. I’ve had this feeling for some time, and I think the silence of CrossFit now was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
SayKay Brown and Taryn Pascal are the team behind @IronRootsAthlete, an Instagram page dedicated to “supporting POC improving their health and fitness through strength sports.” They met over social media and have yet to connect in person; Brown lives in Detroit and Pascal is based in Durham, North Carolina.
Brown owns CrossFit HCS, and as of Monday is considering whether or not to de-affiliate her gym which is currently closed due to coronavirus. “There are all these questions we have to deal with when we’re already trying to open,” Brown said. “Do we have to affiliate to feel like we are better supported? If I don’t disaffiliate, am I supporting CrossFit? Regardless of what anyone ends up doing, this is already a threat to business because they’re evaluating this on top of literally just surviving the current pandemic.”
De-affiliating might be one way for a gym to take a stand, but it comes with some logistical headaches. “That decision comes with numerous questions we’ve posted on our Instagram page,” Brown said. “Do you put in a letter to disaffiliate? Will insurance be turned off immediately? Will we still have the right certifications to coach? I can’t make a decision on Sunday as more information is coming out Sunday night.”
The rush to rid gyms of the CrossFit moniker is understandable, especially as the brand name burns. But Brown urges clients to stay “patient” while gym owners decide how to proceed.
“I want to remind athletes who see big gyms de-affiliating immediately, changing this and that, that most gyms are not that big,” she said. “Most gyms don’t have a huge influx of cash and it’s going to take time for them to realign. We have to consider how we are going to financially support what we believe in. It is definitely a movement for change, but I think everyone needs to be patient.”
Pascal added that disaffiliation is only just one step an owner can take to ensure their gym is an equitable place. “It’s still your responsibility to think, ‘What else can I do in order to help?,’” she added. “Doing one action is not going to automatically give people the inclusive space they’re asking for. I believe that disaffiliating is one movement, and the inclusivity movement is a whole separate thing. It does not equate.”
Knowing that there’s not someone who looks like you and going into a CrossFit gym for the first time is absolutely terrifying
Brown said that while CrossFit’s response to the Black Lives Matter “feels shitty,” she is not at all surprised by the messaging. “Their communication has already been garbage,” she said. “There’s a pretty horrible track record there. Still, when you have a relationship for so long and it’s meant so much to you, it takes a while to process. A lot of us are still in that process and position, especially as affiliate owners.”
“I am mixed race—my mom’s white and my dad’s black,” Pascal added. “I’ve always had that question: Do I fit in enough? Am I white enough? Am I black enough? Am I enough, in general? Knowing that there’s not someone who looks like you and going into a CrossFit gym for the first time is absolutely terrifying.”
Elisabeth Akinwale competed in the CrossFit games from 2011 to 2015 and now trains at Chicago’s 13th Flow. She has spoken about the lack of diversity at CrossFit for years, posting a video discussing race and the company in 2017.
“Whenever I was on a podcast, [the lack of integration in CrossFit] would always come up,” Akinwale told The Daily Beast. “It’s like in classrooms when you’re the one black student in the room, and someone mentions a black topic and everyone in the room looks at them. It’s like I’m the official spokesperson for why this is, instead of the powers-that-be within the organization ever being taken to task for why that is.”
After the protests began, Akinwale shared the video again and released a lengthy statement that read, “You believe people when they show you who they are, and I would argue that CF is very clear and apologetic about who they are… Organizations are responsible for setting their own culture and exercising their own values, which is what CF is doing. My choice has been to create the space that I need.”
“It’s really hard for me to address HQ right now, they’re kind of in the doghouse,” Akinwale told The Daily Beast. “I think it would be great for them to take decisive action to say how they are going to take concrete steps to be more inclusive. So, when I look at their social media presence, it’s inclusive, when I look at their roster of sponsored athletes, it’s diverse, and when I walk into their gym there is a statement of values.”
Sam Leicht, a white Broadway actor and CrossFit trainer, has practiced the regime for seven years. He remembers being on tour with The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical for eight months, and he made a point to stop at a different gym in every city.
“It made me go back to this weird thing I had in high school, getting bullied a little bit for being gay until I did well in sports,” Leicht said. “I’d walk into a new gym on tour, wearing my short shorts and tank tops, not really caring, and I’d definitely get a colder stare from the coaches. Then I start working out, and that’s the common ground.”
“Most of the gyms make you feel comfortable—‘We don’t know you, but we know CrossFit.’ That’s the common ground,” he added. “That’s the part of CrossFit I try so hard to say, ‘It’s not always like this.’ But it is absolutely part of the culture.”
Also part of the culture: CrossFit’s roots as as training regime for police officers. “I’ve seen a lot of owners being super delicate about this situation,” Leicht explained. “If you get down to brass facts, CrossFit was created as a program for servicemen, firefighters, cops. I’m in a bubble with very liberal people, but there are definitely lots of non-liberals doing CrossFit. I get the hesitation and wanting to support them, but you can still say Black Lives Matter.”
Leicht and others say the culture cannot change until Glassman resigns from his post. “I don’t think with him at the helm, CrossFit will continue,” one anonymous gym owner said.
“He needs to resign at this point,” the owner added. “I think it’s a problem of poor leadership.”
The owner, who has not dis-affiliated with CrossFit yet, added that corporate headquarters did not send out any letter of reassurance or support to gym leaders as of Monday afternoon.
“There are no benefits to disaffiliating other than making a statement,” the owner said. “The CrossFit community is always stronger together. We’re all flagships underneath this large battleship. That’s the name, that’s the bond. Without that, we’re weaker for sure, and more susceptible to anything that comes along.”
The owner added that the gym has been closed for three months due to coronavirus, already putting a major strain on funds. “Our business model is not what it was six months ago,” they said. “To pull the CrossFit flag off of our name would reduce visibility for us significantly. Not having that large affiliate base to help the overall community would be deleterious financially.”
The gym sent out an email to clients on Sunday pledging that the team did not support Glassman’s words. “We’ve had the vast majority of replies saying they support us no matter what,” the owner said. “But this one says, ‘Disaffiliate or I’m quitting.’ That’s what I’m reading right now.”
—with additional reporting by Tarpley Hitt