Greg Glassman, the outspoken founder and CEO of CrossFit, made some inflammatory remarks about the nationwide protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Now athletes, gyms, Reebok and other athletic companies are distancing themselves from the CrossFit brand.
The business of CrossFit
CrossFit is a global fitness company based on a fitness methodology that combines high-intensity interval training with Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics. The company makes money from certificate courses and competitions as well as from affiliate fees paid by gyms around the world to use the CrossFit name. The company is fully owned by Glassman, a self-described “rabid libertarian” who has flouted controversy in the past, including by waging a war on Big Sugar. In 2015, Forbes estimated the brand generates about $4 billion in annual revenue.
Members of the CrossFit community pressured Glassman and the company to issue anti-racist statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Glassman resisted the pressure, calling an affiliate gym owner “delusional” in an email for her suggestion. Then, when the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation tweeted that racism is a “public health issue,” Glassman replied “It’s Floyd-19,” apparently comparing the death of George Floyd to the coronavirus. Armen Hammer, a popular CrossFit commentator, says the tweet was “incredibly inflammatory, insensitive and thoughtless.”
Fallout from the tweet and widely circulated email was swift. Over 1,000 gyms have pledged to stop using the CrossFit name, the sport’s top athletes have said they are boycotting the CrossFit Games and companies like Reebok and Rogue Fitness have decided to stop doing business with the company. Hammer estimates the controversy could cost CrossFit hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
Former professional CrossFit athlete Elisabeth Akinwale was saddened by the controversy, but not surprised. “This is just the culmination of a lot of things that have happened over a long period of time,” Akinwale says. “A lot of folks have been coming to me with their experiences as people of color in CrossFit spaces and how they’ve haven’t been responded to by upper levels of the organization.” Akinwale cites examples of black CrossFitters asking majority-white gyms not to play music with the N word, and Latinx athletes being asked to not speak in Spanish while they work out. Glassman and CrossFit issued an apology on Twitter, saying his comments were “a mistake, not racist but a mistake.” But that hasn’t stopped the cascade of gyms disaffiliating from the brand. Neither Glassman or CrossFit could be reached for comment.
CrossFit without the name
Hammer says one of the biggest things CrossFit has going for it is the strength of the brand. “One of the reasons why they have to spend so much time and effort protecting the brand is because how good of a name it is,” he says. So what will CrossFit be called if athletes and gyms distance themselves from the brand? “I’m seeing a lot of the affiliates taking on their own names like such and such community fitness, as one example,” Akinwale says.
An opportunity for change
Akinwale says this moment of reckoning in CrossFit is a microcosm of the societal change happening in America right now. Three years ago, she posted a video about racism in the CrossFit community on her Instagram that largely went unnoticed. When she reposted the same video last week, it made a much bigger splash. “Just like when you’re competing in athletics, when you see an opening, you strike; that’s exactly what’s happening right now,” Akinwale says. “There’s a moment where people’s minds are being open to different things, and this is the moment we need to take advantage of.”
In 2020, CrossFit might be an example of what happens when a brand doesn’t live up to its customers’ expectations.