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  • Alyssa Royse

Wait, Can They Save CrossFit?


Remember, 16 lifetimes ago when I wrote that thing, and the CrossFit world went bonkers, and then some dude bought CrossFit and we all waited to see if there would be change, or not? Not long after that, I gave an interview to Men’s Health magazine, and true to the nature of long-lead media, that was a long time ago, and a lot has changed since then. Which isn’t to say that anything in that article is wrong, it just lacks a more complete perspective that only time can provide.


Because it's out there, I feel the need to update my current thoughts. Because reporters still contact me, I'd rather just put it all out and direct them here. The print edition of the article had the headline Can These Two Guys Save CrossFit? (My answer is that one of them may be able to, but not the other.) Interestingly, the online version removed the question and simply stated that These Two Men Are On A Mission To Save CrossFit. I can only guess that someone was upset with the print headline, as Betteridge’s law of headlines suggests that for any headline that asks a question, the answer is “no.”


Fast Forward to the other day, watching the Impeachment hearings on MSNBC, and hearing the word “CrossFit” in talking about a (now former) affiliate owner who wandered through the halls of the capitol looking for Nancy Pelosi to “shoot her in the friggin' head.”


So ya, the optimism I had when interviewed for Men's Health has turned into more of an aching regret for time wasted trying to grow things where hope was sown into salted earth. It could not be more clear that the problems with CrossFit can’t be solved by changing the CEO any more than a political party is fundamentally changed by electing a new president.


But, let’s go back in time and lay some foundation for chapter #4,926 in this saga that won’t quit.


***

Here’s a picture of me and Dave Castro. It’s funny because if you know either one of us, you can probably guess that Dave and I share no love for each other. (At least I assume that’s why he blocked me from his social media, despite my never having commented on it.) This picture was taken at the old HQ in Santa Cruz sometime in 2019, maybe 2018, I’m not sure. I was there at the invitation of Brian, to better understand what they were trying to do with CrossFit Health (some of which I still think is very good,) and generally get to know everyone better with an eye towards future projects. Brian was talking to Dave, and I was passing by. Brian waved me over and said, “hey, Dave, you need to meet Alyssa, she’s going to teach us how not to be assholes.”

That was a running joke with Brian, Jeff and I. At the time, I believed Brian and I were friends (maybe we were, I’m not trusting my instincts these days,) and that he was committed to the idea that CrossFit had work to do in order to be inclusive in a way that wasn’t pure marketing bullshit with a hefty does of concern-trolling; which is really just mockery that’s hard to criticize.

Anyway, Dave’s response to that, which was kind of sweet, was “I probably need that.” We all laughed and then I said something that I regretted immediately. I said “Ya, but, I should also thank you, because I’ve built my affiliate by directly saying we’re not like you, so it kinda worked for us.” That was a shitty thing for me to say, and I felt bad through the entire meeting that I then went into. As soon as there was a break in the day, and I saw Dave again, I said to him, “dude, I’m so sorry. My response to you was to basically call you an asshole, and that’s not okay, I’m really sorry that I said that, it was wrong of me.”


His response cut me to my core. He said, “it’s okay, it happens a lot.”


That is so fucking sad, on a personal level. But it’s also a good metaphor for this whole entire mess, so it’s not a bad place to start.

***

If you polled the majority of CrossFitters out there, you’d find that most of them are “average” people just trying to be healthier. Many of them were previously afraid of gyms, because of bad experiences with sports in their youth (PE class trauma!) and /or just generally unaware of what to do. They found a community in their local gym, which I believe is the hope of most gym owners. There are so many good gym owners out there, but they get lost in the noise of others.


The Games types – including the laughably loud wannabes - are the outliers, literally. Of the millions of people who do CrossFit around the world, a couple hundred make it to the Games in any capacity, and maybe 30 have a shot at a podium finish and of those, 6 finish on the podium.


That’s one thing that Greg was starting to get right before his ignominious erasure: he was trying to separate CrossFit from The Games. They both can and should exist, but it needs to be made very clear that they are not the same thing. The Games is neither the point nor the expected outcome of the fitness methodology.


Why does it matter? Because to people who are generally afraid of gyms and fitness, for whatever reasons, The Games are scary as fuck. It’s not aspirational, it’s terrifying. And guys like Dave, with their apathetic acceptance that people are just assholes are, well, reminiscent of the guys that mocked many of us in PE class, and taught us that we don’t belong. That’s repellant, not inviting.


Why does that matter? Because the job of a brand is to invite people in, and tell them what to expect. Brand perception is a sales pitch.


As far as CrossFit HQ is concerned, in relation to its affiliates, that’s really their only job. The running “joke” with CrossFit affiliates is that for $3k, it’s the cheapest marketing budget around. But that is dependent on the brand doing that job well. Without that, what’s the point of being an affiliate?


Possibly to its own detriment, CrossFit has done a good job of making “CrossFit style” workouts so commonplace that gyms no longer need the name. We can post pictures and videos of what we do, talk about what we do without using the word “CrossFit,” and that’s good enough. Kind of how one doesn’t need a Kleenex brand tissue to blow their nose, but may still call it a Kleenex.


When money is flowing $3k may not be a big deal, but when, thanks to a global pandemic, money is drying up, affiliates are going to be looking much harder at what they get for the precious money they spend. (Which, in turn, impacts the health of the company overall, as recent events have them losing affiliates in large numbers, that’s….a problem. Without affiliates, there is no CrossFit.)


So, that leaves us with the question of the usefulness of the CrossFit brand, and if there is now leadership that makes it easier on affiliates by making CrossFit more inviting to the general public. The general public, after all, represent the potential market of customers for affiliates.


***

The Men’s Health article didn’t help. There have been some passing mentions that the culture that Greg Glassman fostered wasn’t great. (Which, let’s be clear, is a wild understatement, it was toxic as fuck, and was enabled by lots of people at every level who turned a blind eye and didn't speak up, including affiliates and generalized hero-worship of seriously flawed self-styled "god.") But then you have Castro, in the Men’s Health article, saying about Greg, “Yes, he was an asshole to women. But he was also an asshole to men.”


As if that’s okay.


Flash to my conversation with him. Combined, they show a tacit acceptance that assholery is just an accepted part of CrossFit. (Like, "boys will be boys", right?) Given the stated intent of the many good changes that have already taken place, this seems like a core issue to address if the impact is going to match the intent.


Of course, we’re reading tea leaves here, because there has still been a stark absence of any value statement, especially one to contradict that impression. Most notably, within and TO the affiliate community.


In the absence of corporate statements and direction, you just have affiliates who make the National news. In turn, they shape the public perception, and the narrative.


Cue up the CrossFit gyms that have garnered National attention lately, two of which are no longer affiliated.


First, the guy in New York who made National news by operating against the local COVID regulations and went viral in a news clip tearing up his fines. He stayed an affiliate through that, was even promoted on Instagram by Castro himself. It wasn’t until incredibly racist comments he made came to light that CrossFit said anything. To be clear, they said the right thing, which was “see ya.” (Note though, his attitude and behavior was reminiscent of Glassman, so one has to ask, was Glassman just the tip of the iceberg?)


A few days later, a story about a Bay Area gym that was operating against regulations (while California was literally the world’s hot spot) circulated widely. They were the recipients of two crowdfunding campaigns to pay the fines they – and eventually other gyms – were accruing as a result of operating against mandates. Not to help people harmed by COVID, but to pay fines they accrued by operating against mandates, indoors, when they could have worked out outside in their huge parking lot, in California where the weather is fine. This one was sticky, because the gym-owner was an official affiliate rep for HQ. As it turns out, they removed him from that role after this, but again, no real statement was made either internally or publicly. People still think he’s got a quasi-leadership role, which matters. They look up to him and he has the tacit approval of HQ. So, that’s the brand. That is the behavior that affiliates have reason to believe is condoned. Then, there's Marjorie Taylor Greene, a US Rep so unhinged that the House passed a bipartisan vote to remove her from any committees. She featured CrossFit in her campaign ads, routinely tagged CrossFit in Social Media posts…. And nothing from HQ saying anything about it. Tacit approval. Yes, they can and should distance themselves from her, she’s still posting her workouts and talking about the gym she no longer owns. "We're glad she sees the power in what we do, but we do not stand behind what she does. She does not represent us in any way." See how easy that is? (Worth noting that Morning Chalk Up, the unofficial press of all things CrossFit, ran a fluff piece about her, never once mentioning any of the controversies. When called out by some readers, they just sidestepped it and doubled-down. When I checked yesterday, they had removed all comments. That speaks to the larger culture around the brand.)

She’s actually not the only affiliate owner in the House of Representatives. William Timmons is a Representative from South Carolina who owns Swamp Rabbit CrossFit. (Interestingly, his profile was scrubbed from their site sometime after October 27, when there is still a Wayback machine link, because that’s how the Internet works.) He was skating by unnoticed until he publicly said that he was going to object to the electoral college certification of the election, making him part of the "Big Lie" that fueled the insurrection.


And of course, there’s the now former owner of CrossFit Sine Pari, Dawn Bancroft, was arrested after being identified as the insurrectionist who posted a video saying they had guns and were looking to shoot Nancy Pelosi in the head. She featured prominently not only in the impeachment testimony this morning, but in discussion of it, an MSNBC anchor kept referring to her as a “CrossFit gym owner.” She’s actually now a former CrossFit affiliate owner because CrossFit did reach out and cancel her affiliation, which was obviously the right thing to do. (And, it’s worth noting clearly, NOT something that would have happened prior to Eric Roza taking over.) However, still no proactive statement from HQ. And hearing her name with the word “CrossFit” in such a context reflects on everyone else who is using that name. It was also, personally, just chilling to hear.

Absent a real proactive statement about what the brand stands for, this stuff will continue percolating in the affiliate community. Which reflects on other affiliates, and on the brand.


CFHQ isn’t acknowledging that there is a huge culture war within the affiliate community. Probably because to do so would sound like giving affiliates rules, and the libertarian ethos of CrossFit is very much based on "no rules." I know the tagline is "elite fitness," but how elite is a club that has literally no standards to join?


The affiliate civil war mirrors the one you see all around us in the US right now. There are, as anyone who spends any time in affiliate groups will tell you, two very real factions within the affiliate community. HQ is not taking a stand.


Some might argue that that’s good business. I would argue just the opposite. If a house divided amongst itself shall not stand, it's easier to shore up the parts you want to save than to try and pick up shattered pieces of the whole thing wherever they lay. That would be better business.

To refuse to take a stand on issues of this magnitude because you are afraid it might be bad for business is to take a stand that your business is more important than the issues, or the people harmed by it. It is, as I said in my very first letter, 9 months ago, “morally ambiguous” at best.


Though at this point, I think that saying it’s ambiguous is overly generous. It's been 7 months since Greg left, and these stories are bubbling up more than ever.


Seven. Months.

***

This is a problem for the brand because, for better or worse, the only thing that CrossFit has is its affiliates. When affiliates make the news and control the narrative, they form the public perception of the brand. It’s that simple. That’s why Greg had to go. But then, all these things happened since Greg was gone. So, how much has changed? The culture he built still seems to be alive and well.


To be clear, this is nothing new. As far back as 2008, T Nation was writing about Glassman's behavior and how it has permeated the affiliate culture: Glassman is a controversial figure, quick to make enemies. While he's revered by some in the CrossFit community (many of whom clamor to get their photos taken with him), he's also been called a "lunatic" by at least one former CF coach. "The major problem with CrossFit is Glassman himself. His personality, his ego ... he's now doing CrossFit more harm than good," said the former coach, who asked not to be identified by name because of ongoing friction.


The culture that Glassman created is still alive and well in the affiliates. It has had years to permeate, replicate and mutate. The friction you still see is between those who follow Glassman, and those who just embrace the inclusive power of the CrossFit methodology and try to ignore the rest. (But, to ignore the "bad stuff" is to allow it to continue.)


Dave's shrugging off the assholery, in the first glossy interview piece since the supposed change in leadership, illustrates that, perfectly. After all Dave is, in title and practice, "leadership."


I also know that what we see filter to the top, is usually the tip of the iceberg.


Can we hold CrossFit responsible for their existence? Of course not. But they have to ask why such attitudes are fostered in the community, and why people feel safe expressing them. And why CrossFit hasn't put out a statement making clear, up front, once and for all, that such behavior is not okay. As I said when BarBend reached out to me the other day, HQ has been promptly reactive to things that pop up, and has usually done the right things after the fact. But it’s still after the fact. You can’t build a solid foundation on a shifting zeitgeist unless you know where you stand. They could, and I would argue should, get out in front of it and say “these are the things we stand for, these are the things we won’t stand for, if you can’t get on board, then get out.” I mean, the entire US Military is having a 60-day stand-down to assess why such attitudes are fostered in the military, and it’s too hard for CrossFit to do? Nah.


The military example is extra relevant though, because so much of the core leadership, and foundation, of CrossFit is from the military. Remember CrossFit Sine Pari, the insurrectionist-owned affiliate? Sine Pari means “without equal,” and is the motto for Army Special Opps.


It's possible that CrossFit thinks they can’t take a stand because so much of this is baked in at the highest levels of leadership and the oldest remnants of origin.


The truth is, they are in a position in which they stand to lose affiliates no matter what they do. It's a question of which ones. If I were in charge of a $200M VC investment, I'd be looking to the future, not the past.


There’s no more perfect time to break it down and rebuild better. Most of their affiliates are faced with doing that. Our entire nation is faced with doing just that. CrossFit could handle doing that, if they chose to. I would think that their investors would literally demand that.


***

Constantly reacting is just not real leadership. Sure, leaders need to react quickly when unforeseen things happen, but none of this was unforeseen. All of this is the escalation of the exact problems that found Eric at the helm of a sinking ship in the first place.

To restate things I've said elsewhere, I like the guy. (Though, it would be fair to judge my judgment, since I liked the other guys too.) When we spoke 7 months ago he said he wanted to tackle these issues. (Seven Months. Ago.) He said something that has stuck with me. He said, "We know 'no Nazis,' but the rest isn't so black and white....."


The paradox of tolerance, and inclusivity, is that in order to foster it, you have to explicitly exclude things. As such, value statements can feel like a risky proposition as a business, precisely because the exclude people. People, in general, are what a business wants. I get that.


Luckily, it is Black and White now. We had an insurrection, and more than 400,000 people have died in a pandemic, largely because people refused to take precautions to prevent it. Those are easy things to stand against.


It shouldn't be hard to send out a letter to US affiliates saying what you stand for, what you don't, and letting people choose, in an act of informed consent, whether they want to stand with you or not. It can't possibly take 7 months to send out a more professional version of this 3-minute pass at a letter to affiliates:


Our beloved affiliates,


You are the heart and soul of this brand. You are what makes CrossFit who we are. Together we have the chance to build communities, save lives and change the world. That's amazing.

That also comes with a responsibility. In a time of upheaval that is unprecedented in our lifetimes, we need to set a course. We need to know that the people on our team are truly looking out for the health and well-being of the world around them.

We've taken very seriously the task of defining what that means, which isn't easy. It can't be defined a single political party or religion or way of eating and programming workouts.


Sometimes it's easier to look at what we know we won't stand for. And lately, we've had to swat at those issues when they come up rather than just be clear upfront and let people self-select out.

While we want to encourage your individuality and the unique things that make you who you are, we want to be very clear about some things:

  1. If you cheered on the insurrectionists, we don't see eye-to-eye on what freedom means. And if we find out you were there, we will cancel your affiliate for you. We care more about the safety of people and our democracy than we do your affiliate fee.*

  2. We believe Black Lives Matter, trans people are people and welcome in CrossFit, immigrants are welcome here, queer rights are human rights, and you are free to practice your religion but not free to force it on other people.*

  3. If you believe that you can operate your gym against public health orders in the middle of a pandemic and have our support and backing, you are wrong, we will not defend you.*

We're working on a more comprehensive value statement, but these things feel timely and important right now.


We don't all have to think alike, the world is actually better when we don't. We don't even all have to like each other. But these things speak to the fact that behavior which causes death and destruction to others is the exact opposite of what CrossFit aims to be: a source of health, wellness and fitness that builds stronger people and communities.


If you feel angry that we said this out loud, that we're charting this course, that's okay. It's your right, but this probably isn't the place for you any longer.

With sweat and eyes on a stronger future - CrossFit


(*Or whatever your values actually are, but I'd suggest that this is the direction the zeitgeist is shifting to.)

That would make the news and garner a massive amount of free press. That would define the brand on the right side of history. That would counter what has been in the news lately, letting the general public know that they're safe in a CrossFit gym.


Would you lose some of your remaining affiliates? Yup. Would you get back some of the ones who left in June, and keep some that are waiting for change that still hasn't really come in 7 months? Yup. Would you set up a way for more people, who probably thought CrossFit wasn't for them, to find their way to local affiliates in support of this strong stand? Probably.

*** The affiliates are all CrossFit has. They are the brand. There is nothing but the right to say “I’m one of these people.” Which makes what “these people” do in the public eye really important.


You can put all the feel-good, buzzwordy committees you want. You can even fill them with token BIPOC people and queer people. You can spout all the taglines you want when caught and interviewed. But if the underlying product is fostering the kind of people who think they can send racist emails, foment insurrection and threaten to shoot politicians, you have a real problem.

Shrugging and saying “eh, sometimes we’re assholes,” simply isn’t a solution. It's also a really shitty brand.


CrossFit doesn’t offer anything proprietary at all. It is really a branding and marketing proposition. (And given the background of Roza and VCs, probably a data-mining brand, CRM platform, insurance selling....) When it was new, using that name helped people both find you and understand what you were offering. But now? Kleenex.


Personally, I’ve never seen a brand that has the potential to literally save lives and change the world as much as CrossFit. I’ve seen what happens in the best CrossFit communities out there, and there are so many! I know what the communities are capable of. I know what the power of health and fitness within those communities can do to individual lives.


That’s why it was so hard for me to get to the point where I could give up. But I’m there.


I got there when I heard “CrossFit gym owner” used to describe one of the most public and violent insurrectionists on MSNBC during the impeachment hearings today. I waited for a big public statement saying "we were horrified to hear our name in that context and are putting other initiatives on hold while we figure out how we may have fostered and protected these attitudes amongst our affiliates."


If you can’t, proactively and publicly say, “we don’t want to be associated with these people,” then how can anyone say “cool, I want to be associated with you, just like them."


Fixing CrossFit is more than just changing the CEO.


So, the original question of the Men’s Health article, Can These Two Men Save CrossFit? I dunno, I’m addicted to hope and always see the best, to my own detriment. I think that Eric wants to do that. I certainly think he can. I want to believe that he will.


But I also think that decorating a rotten tree with sparkly buzzwords doesn’t make it a Christmas tree. I think there’s still too much attachment to some of the most toxic legacy patterns at CrossFit. You see it at the affiliate level and in leadership. Nothing can change until that does. You can make all the “inclusive” social media posts you want, you can form committees, but if you can’t cut out the cancers, nothing changes.


Change takes conviction. It takes courage. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions, you don’t really have either.


I’ll leave it at that.


(She says, still trying not to leave something she once loved so much.)

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