COVID shutdowns haven’t been kind to the fitness industry. Big box gyms saw memberships freefall as out-of-work and cash-strapped citizens cut unnecessary expenditures to prepare for the unknown. Independent gyms were in an especially vulnerable spot as small businesses of all shapes and industries peered into their crystal balls to forecast their futures. CrossFit gyms, the trademark branded small-group fitness “boxes” blending weightlifting, gymnastics, and conditioning, worked creatively to try and retain membership. Equipment lending, Zoom-led instruction, and fee reduction became standard practice for small-gym owners attempting to entice their typically loyal membership to keep paying pricier than average dues in the fitness world. Despite their nonessential status, Funkytown’s CrossFit gyms survived and opened their garage doors to eager members with a flurry of new standards and rules in place near the end of May.
Coaches and members, elated at their release from captivity, resumed gobbling their Paleo diets with burpees and box jumps (6 feet apart of course) for dessert. Meanwhile, Greg Glassman –– founder, owner, and CEO of CrossFit –– decided to pin himself between a proverbial dumbbell and the Black Lives Matter movement. Glassman, who developed the CrossFit trademark and multidiscipline training style responded to an email from the owner of a gym (who are called “affiliates”) who questioned CrossFit’s corporate silence regarding racially charged protests throughout the country and worldwide, in addition to questioning how the brand would address the absence of diversity inside most gyms. The email, though lengthy, elicited a succinct response from Glassman in which he accused that owner of quarantine-related mental illness, called her evil, and expressed unequivocally that he was ashamed of her.
Glassman’s response, though terse and insensitive, could have stood on its own as simply the health evangelical being an asshole, which many of his former employees have publicly attested wouldn’t surprise them. Instead, he doubled down the next day by responding to a Twitter post from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that said racism is a public health issue with, “It’s FLOYD-19,” referring to George Floyd, the Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last month. Glassman followed up his tweet by accusing health officials of a failed quarantine model to control the virus spread and asserted that in history, quarantines are almost always followed by riots and general distrust.
It doesn’t take a crisis management expert to know these off-the-cuff responses were met with ire by some and anger by many. Prominent athletes in the sport took to their Instagram accounts to malign the CEO and cast doubt on their participation in the CrossFit Games, a yearly competition that has been the subject of numerous documentaries and is broadcast in late July through a contract with ESPN. The gyms came next, far and wide –– CrossFit has more than 15,000 affiliate gyms in more than 150 countries –– with owners trumpeting unequivocally that Glassman’s candid remarks did not represent their gym’s views. In less than 72 hours, nearly 1,500 gyms had vowed to break their affiliation (owners pay $3,000 per year to put CrossFit on their signs) if substantial leadership and culture changes were not made. Reebok –– the Crossfit Games’ title sponsor and seller of licensed apparel for the past 10 years –– broke off contract renegotiations. Rogue Fitness –– provider of all CrossFit Games equipment –– announced they would fulfill their contractual obligation through this year to support the athletes but balked at a continued partnership without major changes. A slew of smaller fitness brands associated with CrossFit have echoed these sentiments.
Glassman –– who has said before when interviewed that the company grew organically and he’s done his best to simply stay out of the way –– has placed his prized creation as well as its affiliates under a sandbag of racial rhetoric. Fort Worth gyms are faced with their own tough decisions. Natalie and Wade Sisk, wife and husband owners and coaches of CrossFit Anthology on University Drive, acknowledged that the training methodology and branding is likely what brought members through their doors the first time. As of now, they’ve decided they will not keep their affiliation and will revert to their previous name sans the trademark brand, No Limit Strength & Conditioning. CrossFit Westwood on the Near Southside and CrossFit Iron Horse near the Como neighborhood on West Vickery Boulevard also announced via Instagram that they don’t support Glassman’s statements and will leave the brand behind, transitioning to Westwood Athletics and Iron Horse Community Fitness, respectively. Westwood seized the opportunity to host a row-a-thon to support a host of anti-racist organizations. Teams competed to raise funds and to row the farthest distance, and their efforts banked more than $15,000 worth of donations.
The owners of numerous other gyms in Fort Worth told me via phone that they don’t support Glassman’s statements but that one man doesn’t represent the CrossFit community that they build in their gyms every day. These affiliates are waiting to see how leadership changes come to reflect what the community expects of them. With losses of dues and training revenue mounting, CrossFit headquarters announced Glassman would retire as the CEO –– though he retains 100% ownership –– and the director of the CrossFit Games and perhaps the more recognizable face of the brand, Dave Castro, would take his place. This announcement was seen as a meager step among the fitness community, as Glassman’s role as retired is ill-defined and since he still retains sole ownership and therefore control over the company. This shouldn’t be a comforting thought to owners as, ultimately, what Glassman does affects public perception of the brand and thus the gyms despite them operating completely independently from him and with no corporate oversight.
Castro assuming the head role seemed like big news until the real barbell dropped two days later when former CrossFit HQ employee and private pilot to Glassman, Andy Stumpf, chronicled his reasons for departing the company in 2014. Stumpf, during an episode of his popular podcast Cleared Hot, described a disturbing environment where sexual harassment from Glassman toward female employees haunted him mightily enough to now speak out on behalf of those affected. According to Stumpf –– and now others via major media outlets –– Glassman made advances and comments and was a general perverted creeper toward any woman working for CrossFit whom the founder deemed attractive and desirable.
Apologies for Glassman’s racially charged Twitter comments were issued through social media, but the home base is dead silent regarding these accusations despite an article from a notable national news outlet and yet more athletes who were supposed to appear at the now-delayed CrossFit Games who have declined their invitations to boycott the corporate culture. CrossFit, who is famously litigious, utilizes non-disclosure agreements for many departing employees to receive severance packages. Stumpf, despite a financial incentive, declined to sign such an agreement when departing six years ago. Glassman’s former pilot also acknowledged that he would likely be pursued legally by Glassman and threatened to publicize specific examples and identities to support his generalized characterizations should the founder’s lawyers attack. Several days after his podcast, Stumpf took to his Instagram account to report he was receiving threats of character assassination directly from Glassman’s personal cell phone. The fall of the founder of CrossFit is an ongoing saga, and more is likely to be revealed. That said, it’s clear that toxic leadership have left local former and current affiliates in a pinch between abandoning a well-known brand identity and explaining that the name on their signs doesn’t reflect the culture they’ve worked tirelessly to build as independent owners in their Funkytown boxes.