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Will CrossFit survive after executive’s comments?

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

    ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE

On Sunday, about 50 black owners of CrossFit affiliate studios joined a Zoom conference call with Greg Glassman, the chief executive of CrossFit. They represent a small percentage of the owners of the more than 14,000 gyms around the world that pay $3,000 a year to use that name.

Maillard Howell, 41, is an owner of Dean CrossFit Gym in Brooklyn, New York. He had one question. “How many black people work at HQ?” he said.

Glassman said he wasn’t even sure, Howell said. He then asked an associate on the call, who also didn’t know.

“CrossFit, the method, has done amazing things for me and for many people, but the company, systemically, it’s very much flawed,” said Howell, who holds an MBA and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 11 years before opening his gym.

Glassman and his corporate team had hastily agreed to this call, as the corporate brand descended further into a crisis.

On Saturday, Glassman had responded to a tweet that said: “Racism and discrimination are critical public health issues that demand an urgent response.”

He tweeted in reply, “It’s Floyd-19.”

CrossFit, unlike many other brands, had not made great public shows of support to its black community on social media since the death of George Floyd in late May and the ensuing protests against police mistreatment of black people that have captivated the world. (The police officer charged with Floyd’s murder, Derek Chauvin, is expected to appear in court late this month.)

Glassman’s tweet was his first public statement on the topic. Just the day before, the brand’s Facebook page had published a conversation starter about serving its black community better, though it did not mention Floyd or Black Lives Matter.

On social media, Glassman’s tweet drew a swift response. “Thank you for letting your Black athletes know exactly how little you care about them,” one tweet said. “How to kill your brand in three words or less,” another read. Some referenced President Donald Trump: “Trump will support you!! Hes totally into CrossFit! I see his gatherings! So many CrossFitters there!”

More than 24 hours after his initial tweet — and several hours after the call with the black owners — CrossFit issued a statement with an apology it attributed to Glassman. “I made a mistake by the words I chose yesterday,” he said. “My heart is deeply saddened by the pain it has caused. It was a mistake, not racist but a mistake.” (Neither Glassman nor a CrossFit representative responded to a request for comment.)

The apology did not prevent associates from breaking ties with CrossFit. “From a monetary standpoint, it will cost CrossFit millions, in royalties, in its Reebok deal, in licensing fees, in sponsorships,” said Justin LoFranco, the creator of Morning Chalk Up, a newsletter about CrossFit. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a company that says, ‘Yes, I want to put my name on the CrossFit Games right now.’”

But the real damage was more profound, LoFranco said, affecting the community spirit of individual CrossFit gyms. “It does trend white, but it is still a big tent,” he said. “There are gay people, straight people, black, white, too fat, too skinny, people who say, ‘I’m looking for a better version of me,’ and they find it there.” The fitness system is based on military training exercises and attracts a large number of veterans, including those who have been injured, have paraplegia, or who have lost limbs.

LoFranco posted a survey to the Morning Chalk Up Instagram account, asking affiliate studios how they felt about Glassman’s leadership. By this afternoon, more than 500 said they would discontinue their affiliation with the CrossFit brand.

Reebok, the official CrossFit outfitter and a major sponsor of the CrossFit Games, an annual competition that last year awarded its winner a $300,000 prize, announced Sunday that it would not extend its association with the CrossFit brand.

“Our partnership with CrossFit HQ comes to an end later this year,” Reebok said in a statement. “Recently, we have been in discussions regarding a new agreement, however, in light of recent events, we have made the decision to end our partnership with CrossFit HQ. We will fulfill our remaining contractual obligations in 2020. We owe this to the CrossFit Games competitors, fans and the community.”

And Rogue Fitness, an equipment manufacturing company closely associated with CrossFit, said it would remove CrossFit’s branding from its upcoming fitness competition, scheduled to take place this month in Columbus, Ohio. “We stand behind the community,” the company wrote in an Instagram post.

For Dasia Welsh, 28, a leadership consultant for a technology company in Nashville, Tennessee, who does CrossFit six times a week, Glassman’s words represent a loss of opportunity.

“I see firsthand the benefits this would have for so many in the black community,” she said of the fitness regimen. “And yet there is this entire group of people who don’t feel supported by this company. This is very hard because CrossFit is not just something you do on the side, it is a part of the dynamic of our life.”

Carlos Navarro, the owner of Iron Reign CrossFit in Lodi, New Jersey, said he’ll have to decide if he’ll renew that affiliate membership when it expires in four months. “In order for me to keep this place open, I need to bring members in. And the word CrossFit is what you pay for,” he said.

CrossFit began in a garage in Santa Cruz, California, and has since grown to more than 14,000 affiliate gyms, or “boxes” as they are known in the CrossFit community. The term “box” refers to the bare-bones appearance the gyms maintain.

Glassman is a former gymnast and started CrossFit.com in 2001. He trained members of the Santa Cruz Police Department, and the membership expanded as it grew in popularity among first responders, with the additional help of many fitness blogs and communities, as well as with social media posts. There were 13 locations as of 2005 and 3,400 as of 2012.

Chandler Smith said he was projected to be ranked 20th out of thousands of athletes at the CrossFit Games.

“For the last eight years, making the CrossFit Games has been the No. 2 priority of my life, second only to accomplishing my duties as an Army West Point cadet and then as a United States Army officer,” Smith said. “Those who know me know that making the Games in 2020 has been my primary goal since my wrestling career ended, and that has made the recent happenings within the sport absolutely devastating.”

Smith said he was optimistic that CrossFit will survive. “Given the apology issued by CrossFit headquarters, I am optimistic that an actionable plan will be developed and lead to the games still occurring.”

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