CrossFit, Black Lives and COVID
This will almost certainly become a series, because it's just too big not to. CrossFit has stayed silent for too long as our country is at a time of reckoning for centuries of systemic racism. They have been called out by countless gyms and athletes and brands alike for their silence. Rocket has enjoyed a close enough relationship with HQ for long enough that we hoped we could..... do something. We didn't know what. Get them to take a stand? Listen to their affiliates? Rise to the occasion? We worked together to lift the trans ban. To open to the queer community. It seemed at least possible that they would rise to this occasion too. I wrote a letter to the CEO, because we'd had a relationship for years. And because as someone who loves CrossFit, I was genuinely worried about the future of the company, which has so much potential to do so much good. I genuinely love CrossFit. So I reached out.
I'm using Greg Glassman's response as the header image for this blog post because I think it really says all that needs to be said about their response when called out. The gaslighting, the belittling, the..... The rest of this blog post will simply be the letter that was sent to Brian, the CEO. It is our blueprint for why we are disaffiliating. His letter is just the cherry on top. So, apparently we're doing it more quickly than we meant to, but, we'll soon be relaunching as Rocket Community Fitness. Because cannot stand on the wrong side of history, even if we lose friends because of it. BLACK LIVES FUCKING MATTER.
The letter we wrote follows: June 3, 2020
I can’t remember if it was you or Jeff who once said to me that if CrossFit loses Rocket, you’ll know you’re in trouble. I keep hearing that in my heart, which is why I am writing to you. I want to tell you that every word I write here is written with love. If I didn’t think you and CrossFit were worth it, I wouldn’t bother.
I don’t know if you’re in trouble, but you are probably (reluctantly) losing Rocket. I want you to know why, because as a friend I think there is a lot to learn from our decision. I don’t expect you to change. I’m not asking you to change. I just think that you have a right to know, because the issues are big and potentially highlight larger risks for the health of CrossFit. If you want to talk about it, I’m here to do that, at least until it crosses the line from friendship to consulting.
Rocket CrossFit will be changing our name to Rocket Community Fitness, and likely disaffiliating from CrossFit when it’s time to renew. The thought of that hurts my soul, I love CrossFit. The reasons boil down to an incoherent brand identity 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.
As you know, we’ve struggled with the brand identity of CrossFit for a long time. That struggle centers around the fact that if you ask strangers on the street what CrossFit is, you’ll get infinitely (dare I say “constantly”) varied answers. I know that some of that is by design; as a company you set a low barrier to entry from which any affiliate owner can make it their own. I grok that. The problem is that there is still a wide perception of what CrossFit is, and that’s still fed by either The Games, or by social media. Social media from HQ is often problematic, like the racist Fluffy Duck post at the outset of COVID-19, or recently using “Flatten The Curve” to tell people to lose weight. From affiliates it’s all over the board: some inspirational, some dangerous and embarrassing.
Regardless, “CrossFit” doesn’t mean anything as a brand. Indeed, the primary job of a brand is to tell you what to expect. Whether you like McDonalds or not, you know what to expect when you see one. The reason that matters as an affiliate is that I am paying $3,000 a year for that brand to mean something, and attract customers. But if potential customers don’t know what “CrossFit” means, or if they think it means something they don’t want to be part of, it has little value.
It’s like “soda.” Soda only has a very general meaning. Something liquid, fizzy and hopefully cold. But offering someone a soda doesn’t tell them if they’re getting cola, orange, root beer, ginger ale…… Though obviously a particularly inflammatory example, that’s the problem we keep running into.
A brand should tell someone what to expect. CrossFit, as a business has taken a stand opposite that.
I know all the things you and Greg say about freedom and not having a core leadership in terms of brand ID. And that CrossFit is a methodology, not a brand. (Which makes even less sense for affiliation, since the methodology is not proprietary in any way.) That was okay for a long time. Not great, but not a large obstacle for our business. The braggadocio of the brand perception was a benign buffoon off of which we could springboard our own identity, and we have built a thriving community in the last decade as a result of our own work, our own brand.
But when I have to repeatedly defend the CrossFit brand or say “we’re not like that,” the brand begins to take on negative value.
So, on we chugged, doing our thing. Being Rocket. Just, Rocket. We did things “the Rocket way.” We designed and codified what it means to be Rocket. Indeed, that had me on the road to gyms all over the country, twice a month, teaching other gyms how we do things, in contrast to the brand perception of CrossFit.
Until COVID hit.
COVID hit hard. We’ve been closed for 3 months now. Even so, we are amongst the lucky ones. We took a huge hit, but we’re fine. Our community is strong, we pivoted our classes online, we’re fine.
But we also realized that we are doing so alone. We do not have the help of the brand that we pay to be affiliated with, and we are not part of any sort of united group with shared values. That has become frighteningly clear in watching the behavior of other affiliates. We have seen things that we do not want to be associated with, but are associated with, because we share a name.
That is a very important realization. It is important because it gave us space to evaluate why we use the name CrossFit if it doesn’t have a clear meaning, a group affiliation that we relate to and are proud of, or any sort of real leadership.
The irony, of course, is that I know the leadership very well. I would go so far as to say that I love the leadership of CrossFit on a personal level. When people would complain about what HQ did and didn’t provide to affiliates, I have often come to the defense of HQ, providing a list of things you do behind the scenes. I am aware not only of what you do, but the depth of care that you have.
The absence of real leadership didn’t matter much when the world wasn’t in crisis. But it matters now, a lot.
It probably matters more to your future as a company than it does to mine. What we have learned – and what I know lots of other affiliates have learned – is that we don’t depend on HQ for anything. Which also means we don’t need it for anything.
All that work that you do behind the scenes will actually benefit all of us whether we are affiliates or not. Fighting licensure laws? Awesome, but Joe’s Fitness benefits just as much as we do. Training and certification courses? Love them, but I don’t need to be an affiliate in order to hire coaches who have done your courses. (Which are excellent and what I would focus on if I were advising you for the health of your business.)
I would urge you to really think about the fact that many of us have realized that we don’t need to be affiliates. But, you do need people to stay affiliated. That is a huge chunk of your operating revenue.
This is where leadership really matters. Specifically, communication from leadership.
Without that, it doesn’t much matter what you do behind the scenes. Think of it like a relationship – because that’s what it is. If you are an absent partner, who doesn’t communicate with your spouse, listen to what they need and feel, the relationship won’t last. Sure, you can buy time with grand gestures, you can explain yourself endlessly when things erupt in fighting, you can even make up, but usually, those relationships don’t last. Especially if there is no clear and communal vision about what you want for your future, together.
That’s probably where we are with Rocket and CrossFit. From conversations I’ve had, that’s probably where you are with a lot of affiliates. Especially those of us who are truly mission driven to save lives.
Especially now, because many affiliates are in crisis thanks to COVID. And certainly all of us in the US are living through unprecedented social unrest rooted very specifically in racist injustice. In both cases, CrossFit has either been absent or wrong.
Incoherent brand identity and absent leadership are especially detrimental to a relationship when combined with moral ambiguity. Your moral ambiguity has become very clear in how CrossFit has, and hasn’t, responded in the face of both COVID and the massive social unrest the US is now reckoning with.
Whether you believe the coronavirus is “real” or not, its impact on the world is real. Moreover, its disproportionate impact in the US on minorities is very real. Failure to address COVID as the complex thing that it is has highlighted the short-sightedness of CrossFit and its myth of individuality. Indeed, CrossFit seems to have simply fallen back on “fat is bad, you’re bad if you’re fat, we can fix you.”
CrossFit continues to pretend that the solutions are simple. “Off the carbs, off the couch,” as if that, in and of itself is something that everyone has easy and equal access to do. The issues of health, fitness and nutrition are deeply intwined with the systemic inequality in this country. The systemic inequality, social determinants of health, and complex relationship to “health” systems all impact outcomes of COVID. You’re smart enough to know that, yet failed to seize the opportunity to address any of it.
The only real statement CrossFit has made came in the form of a video so filled with fat-shaming vitriol that we literally had members sending it to us saying “what is this shit?” At a time when thousands of vulnerable people are dying, CrossFit put out a video that basically said “it’s your fault, you should have been like us.” Parroting old fitness industry tropes that do more to shame and repel the people who need us the most, rather than to invite them in and offer access to a solution. Thankfully, last time I looked, fewer people had watched it than read my blog posts.
(Whoever edited that should be fired. Especially if it was the same person who posted the racist Fluffy Duck meme. And the “flatten the curve” weight loss meme. So let me eat crow: I desperately wanted you to bring social media back, it never occurred to me that it would be used so badly.)
As Brady and I were both shaking our heads at this flaccid and irresponsible response, the George Floyd murder threw our country into massive unrest. CrossFit is the only major brand I can think of that has failed to take a stand, make a statement, show support for social justice in general and Back lives in specific.
While I fully understand that you may feel like you’re in a tough spot, there are easy ways out of it. Certainly easier than the things we’ve already accomplished together with inclusivity in the queer community. (And that went really well!)
Let’s be clear, your silence IS taking a stand. You are standing, in silence on the side of history that Brady and I cannot stand on. Even taking a small step to the right side of history is better than haphazardly napping on the wrong side of history.
In one of the Affiliate Owners’ Groups, a black affiliate owner asked “where’s HQ?” And they were told, essentially, that it’s only business, not the place. But that’s wrong. Now, more than ever, is the time and the place. My response to that post was:
At a time like this, their - anyone's - silence speaks volumes, and it does so loudly. To not speak up against the injustice, in support of the pleas from the black people in our country, is to say that you don't care. Or that you don't care as much about them as you do about your business. Or about not making waves. Or about not offending someone. Or about your own comfort and security. Or, worse, that you support the systems against which they are protesting.
Don't be fooled into thinking that silence is anything other than support for the status quo, nestled in cowardice.
Silence isn't avoiding drama. Silence absolutely is not "not taking sides." It takes the side of the status quo. In a fight against violence and oppression, silence takes the side of violence and oppression. There is no such thing as not taking a side at a time like this, some people just do it because they're too weak to do anything else.
"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." - Martin Luther King Jr.
If you are hoping that there is a way to stay silent and not piss anyone off, there isn’t. If you are hoping that there’s a way to say something and not piss anyone off, there probably isn’t that either. (Though honestly, you’d piss fewer people off.)
Either way, you may lose affiliates. If you lose Rocket, and the other gyms like Rocket, you will be left only with the gyms too afraid to take a stand. Is that what you want? Is that really the cream rising to the top?
I ask you that as someone who cares.
The absence of real leadership, and murky brand didn’t matter much when our affiliate fee was just cheap marketing. But now, when we’re aligning our own business and brand with a global company that isn’t taking a stand at a time of crisis? That’s something different altogether.
CrossFit needs its affiliates. In order for you to keep affiliates, you need them to believe that the brand itself has value, there is leadership that cares and is there for affiliates, and core values with which they can align.
The absence of all of those things may have been the very thing that enabled rapid growth in the beginning. But it may also be the thing that causes slow decline and death.
As someone in an interesting position of both insider and outsider I would be very worried about your business right now.
You are going to lose a lot of affiliates this year. Many will be lost to financial hardship and closure as a result of a global pandemic. Many will also be lost to simply not seeing value in paying HQ for “services” that are cloaked in ambiguity and a relationship that feels one-sided due to absence of communication. And many will be lost to CrossFit’s failure to take a stand in a time of moral crisis in the US.
You are likely losing Rocket to that last thing.
It’s worth remembering that Jeff coined me “the conscience of CrossFit” as I worked with him on trans and queer inclusivity. It was a cute title, but it was not said in jest. At a time of crisis, the thing you most need is your conscience, it is the North Star in a storm. That is the thing – whether that conscience is me or not – that seems lost. There is no charting a course without it. (And yes, I still wish I could help, more than anything.)
Brady and I both still love you, Greg and CrossFit, and have felt loyal to all of you. CrossFit changed our lives, it enabled us to change countless other lives. We’ve been through a lot together, and stayed loyal. Though at some point, loyalty turns into fealty. Or enabling.
The CrossFit that the world is seeing now does not reflect the values that Rocket is built on. The racist posts, the fat-shaming, all of it becomes a reflection of us as long as we are Rocket CrossFit. That’s a problem.
I still look at you and CrossFit with all the love I have in my soul. I still see all the potential that I ever saw.
We are at a crossroads and will have to actively choose the future we want. You are too.
I don’t know what it means for you, I know I don’t have a right to an opinion there. (Though I will always wish that I could help.)
I don’t even know, for sure, what it means for Rocket. I suspect we won’t renew our affiliation in the fall (assuming you don’t do it for us after this letter.) But, like any breakup with someone you truly love, I don’t want that. I just think we have to in order to honor our mission statement.
Regardless, I will always hope for the best for you. And CrossFit.
We have been through so much together that it would simply be wrong to ghost you, even if it’s just business. We all have decisions to make, and I trust that even if we do wind up doing it from different paths, we will still be making the world a better place.
I will always wish we could do it together.
Editing to add the Tweets that are mentioned in the original letter. And also Glassman's most recent Tweet mocking COVID-19.