CrossFit, Greg Glassman, and how a flourishing brand plunged itself into crisis

The brand’s founder and CEO shocked followers with an insensitive tweet about George Floyd – now Britain’s No 1 CrossFit athlete Zack George is calling for Glassman to sell the company

Zack George: 'We don't want to keep filling the pockets of Greg Glassman'
Zack George: 'We don't want to keep filling the pockets of Greg Glassman'

Of the many pieces of tone-deaf corporate messaging during the Black Lives Matter movement, CrossFit’s has been up there with the most painfully out of tune. The company’s CEO and founder, Greg Glassman, caused such offence with his “Floyd-19” tweet this week that major sponsors cut ties and more than a thousand affiliate gyms around the world pulled down the name from their walls. CrossFit’s social media channels stayed silent as the community waited for an apology, until finally a post appeared on Instagram: it was a recipe for a beef and broccoli meal, with a creamy paprika sauce.

One can only imagine how CrossFit athletes felt as they watched the video of this extremely disappointing dish being prepared. Led by Glassman, the company has grown a dedicated following since its inception in 2000, all committed to his brutal fitness ideology, buying into the idea of fitness as a sport itself. Now many of those who have set up gyms in the CrossFit name, paying $3000 a year for the privilege, are washing their hands of the company.

For big brands like CrossFit, words are meant to be the easy part. Plenty have pumped out meaningless platitudes recently alongside a BlackLivesMatter hashtag: our work here is done. The hard bit is confronting your own shortcomings and committing to meaningful action. See Barry’s Boot Camp, a fitness organisation which made time this week for introspection, admitted its previous “inaction to create a truly anti-racist culture”, and announced an eight-step plan to destruct its own systemic racism. Or Gymshark, who posted “fuck standing on the sideline”, donated $125,000 to the Black Lives Matter movement, and vowed to use its platform to educate employees and followers on racial injustice.

After such a giant misstep, a sincere apology from Glassman might at least have helped mitigate CrossFit’s descension to crisis. This week L’Oréal apologised to the British transgender model Munroe Bergdorf for dropping her after she criticised institutionalised racism. New L’Oréal president Delphine Viguier reached out, donating £50,000 to UK Black Pride and to transgender charity Mermaids, and appointing Bergdorf to the company’s new diversity and inclusion board. In contrast Glassman’s apology, issued only after his biggest sponsor Reebok had cut ties, felt like more of an excuse and came with a dose of denial. “It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake,” he signed off.

Britain’s No1 CrossFit competitor and one of the few black athletes at the top of the sport, Zack George, was hurt by Glassman’s comments and says the company’s founder failed to represent CrossFit’s open and inclusive community. “It was a mix between shock, anger and sadness that the CEO and the face of our brand can come out with something like that, and didn’t really show remorse,” George tells The Independent. “No apology would have been good enough, only actions, but he should have done a video and been a lot more remorseful, a lot more heartfelt than just another another tweet.”

George runs CrossFitBFG in Leicester and has considered joining the legions of affiliates walking away, but wants to give the company a chance to take remedial steps. Glassman has at least stepped down as CEO, but his replacement, Dave Castro, who organises the CrossFit Games, famously walked off stage last year when asked about company diversity during a Q&A. “He’s an unusual character,” says George. “He’s by no means perfect but we’ve got to give him the opportunity.”

As CrossFit’s goodwill sheds by the hour and its financial foundations crumble, George says only root-and-branch reform can save it. Glassman may have stepped down as CEO but he remains the company’s owner. “The best solution would be to have the community and the affiliate owners as the shareholders,” says George. “It shouldn’t be down to one person, and the only way I see that happening is if he sells his shares in the company. We don’t want to keep filling the pockets of Greg Glassman. Resigning as the CEO is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t change too much when all the funds of CrossFit goes to him. I don’t think it’s good enough to just step down, I think he’s got to have bigger actions.”

Many of the open letters written by angry affiliate gym owners over recent days reveal a lack of leadership has been an ongoing concern, and like so many things has been highlighted by the movement. Rocket CrossFit in Seattle said it would be changing its name to Rocket Community Fitness, and published a letter to CrossFit executive Brian Mulvaney which said: “The absence of real leadership didn’t matter much when the world wasn’t in crisis. But it matters now, a lot.”

It’s usually pretty tedious and unconvincing when brands pay lip-service to wider societal issues, but this week has proved that just as it can be handled disastrously, it can be handed effectively too. It can lead to real change, to companies reflecting on their own actions, to new pathways for BAME employees not just to participate but to lead. A movement like this one can also reveal glaring inequalities, injustices and shine a light on those unwilling to change. CrossFit has been exposed, and in doing so perhaps it has also helped to expose something else: some of the many fallacies of ‘get woke, go broke’ thinking.

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