Life

“I’ve Never Wanted to Be Told What to Do”

How a collision between libertarianism, pandemic, and protests brought CrossFit to its knees.

A barbell with weights on it sits in an empty gym.
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A lot of people had their gut feelings about CrossFit, the 20-year-old functional fitness regimen that inspires extreme devotion in its adherents, confirmed this week. Co-founder Greg Glassman resigned on Tuesday night after BuzzFeed News published audio of an off-the-rails weekend Zoom call with a group of affiliate owners. In that audio, Glassman advances conspiracy theories about George Floyd’s death, calls epidemiology a “social science,” and advises reopening gyms to say they’re adhering to sanitary protocols, then continue on with their business. A clip from comedian Janelle James’ 2018 appearance on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, of a bit in which she describes CrossFit as a “racism training camp,” subsequently went viral, and every reply to her tweet of it corroborated her observation: “That was always the vibe I got. … Definitely had the angry, militia style feeling.” As of Friday, more than 1,000 gyms had disaffiliated from the CrossFit brand.

A tweet of Glassman’s on Saturday, calling the concept of systemic racism “FLOYD-19,” shows how intertwined the Floyd-inspired protests and the coronavirus shutdowns were in provoking this meltdown of leadership at CrossFit. The Greg Glassman crisis is a pandemic crisis, and a diversity crisis, and they’re deeply interconnected. As Glassman’s long-avowed libertarianism pressed up against the COVID-19 lockdowns and the recent protests against police brutality—as we’re all in the process of trying to meet the intellectual demands of a complex situation that shows us all just how much people’s health is determined by their social position, rather than their individual effort—something seems to have snapped.

There’s a longtime affinity between CrossFit and libertarianism. In a 2013 feature in Inc., Burt Helm wrote that the business’s structure is “neither a wholly owned chain of gyms or a franchise, but the nucleus of a sprawling worldwide network of entrepreneurs.” Helm’s description of Glassman’s leadership is prescient: “Glassman doesn’t behave the way he’s supposed to. Sometimes he rebels out of cunning, other times for the sheer petulant fun of it. Often, it’s hard to tell which. … Glassman is sitting atop a firecracker of a company.” “I’ve never wanted to be told what to do … I think it’s genetic,” Glassman said to Helm.

As Glassman built CrossFit, the success of every unconventional choice he made seems to have confirmed his worldview. The co-founder prides himself on having been kicked out of various gyms in Santa Cruz, California, as he was developing the methodology, because what he was doing went against standard nutritional and fitness advice. He prescribed short, intense, totally draining workouts, rather than long, languid stints on the elliptical, and a high-protein, low-carb diet, of the kind that’s now much more mainstream but at the time went against conventional wisdom. Early adopters were military, police, and serious athletes, but Glassman and CrossFit also trained the out-of-shape and older people; CrossFit prides itself on being infinitely “scalable” for all bodies. In short, CrossFit has succeeded despite going against the grain.

Those lessons seem to have left Glassman unprepared to react to a situation like the pandemic, that has required intellectual humility, some degree of conformity, and sacrifice at considerable personal cost. On June 3, Alyssa Royse, owner of a CrossFit affiliate in Seattle, wrote a long letter to CrossFit HQ, critiquing leadership’s response to COVID-19 and to the protests. If you’ve heard of this letter, it’s probably because of the response Glassman sent, which was short, brutal, and deeply unfair, especially when measured against Royse’s thoughtfulness: “I sincerely believe the quarantine has adversely impacted your mental health. … You think you’re more virtuous than we are. It’s disgusting. … You’re doing your best to brand us as racist and you know it’s bullshit. That makes you a really shitty person. … I am ashamed of you.”

But the original letter puts its finger on a deep ideological rift within a fitness movement that celebrates building individual strength in the midst of a pandemic. Royse connected CrossFit’s corporate response to COVID and to protests against police brutality in a section called “Moral Ambiguity.” “Failure to address COVID as the complex thing that it is has highlighted the short-sightedness of CrossFit and its myth of individuality,” Royse wrote. “CrossFit seems to have simply fallen back on ‘Fat is bad, you’re bad if you’re fat, we can fix you.’ ” (Unsurprisingly, Royse’s gym has since disaffiliated.)

On the official CrossFit site, where HQ has long posted WODs (“Workouts of the Day”) and links, you can track how HQ’s response to COVID-19 developed. On March 22, the site reposted a copy of “Evidence Over Hysteria—COVID-19,” a Medium piece by “growth hacker” Aaron Ginn, whose Twitter bio includes the hashtags “#skeptic #crossfit #keto.” Commenters responded to the piece, which Medium later took down, with a mixture of applause and measured critique. At some point, the argument seems to have shifted from “This isn’t a thing” to “This is only a thing for people who aren’t fit.” On April 16, CrossFit.com posted a link to a piece about COVID-19 hospital admissions in New York City, noting that “diabetics and the obese are at elevated risk.” On April 27, it was a link to a piece from European Scientist titled “COVID-19 and the Elephant in the Room,” about the relationship between COVID-19, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. (“Public Health England have said now is the best time to quit smoking,” the piece’s author, Aseem Malhotra, wrote. “But why not also ask the public to ‘quit ultra-processed food’?”) On May 25, the site reposted a piece with the headline “Inactivity Caused by COVID-19 Lockdowns Risks Chronic Disease Spike.”

But it was a couple of videos posted on CrossFit’s Facebook page that really show how the analysis evolved. In a March 27 video, “Chronic Disease: Key to COVID-19 Deaths,” of a Glassman lecture, it becomes clear he was merging his longtime interest in chronic disease and his belief in CrossFit’s ability to “fix” it with his analysis of the COVID-19 situation. He describes the source of all chronic disease as lying in individuals’ lack of willpower in matters of diet and exercise: “Two pathological behaviors, two deleterious, extremely damaging behaviors that were choices.” “Is it fair to say that the death is happening over here to the people who are already seriously ill or elderly?” he asked. “I see these as chronic disease deaths.” The answer, the video had it, was the CrossFit method: “CrossFit fixes this, medicine babysits it.” “You sit in possession of a unique solution to the world’s greatest problem,” a May 13 video posted on the Facebook page told CrossFit affiliate owners, again offering Glassman’s exercise method as the answer to the pandemic.

Royse isn’t the only person who saw CrossFit HQ’s COVID-19 response as being mixed up with Glassman’s comments on Floyd. I spoke with Christina Spencer, owner of a CrossFit affiliate in Junction City, Kansas, who said she was waiting to see what happened at CrossFit HQ after Glassman’s exit before deciding whether to renew her affiliation. (“I want to see a more diverse HQ, more representation on social media platforms,” Spencer, who is black, said on the phone, describing an additional need for more people of color among seminar staff and trainers for certification programs. “My perspective is: I can’t help make the change if I leave.”)

Spencer said that she had been on a Zoom call with Glassman and other affiliate owners in March and that Glassman voiced skepticism of the pandemic’s threat then. “I was a science teacher,” Spencer said. “I’m going to believe what the WHO and the CDC put out, even if that changes, because as they gather more information and evidence, they’re going to understand it better and better. I think some people don’t realize how quickly science can change.” But, she said, there were so many people around her saying things like that about COVID-19 that it didn’t seem unusual to her at the time.

Spencer pointed me to a May 17 episode of her podcast IronMVMNT, in which she and her co-host interviewed Alyssa Royse about the May 13 video. The line that stuck out to all three speakers was one that I noticed, too, when Glassman said, addressing affiliate owners: “I don’t owe anyone any sympathy for the chronically diseased. … Not with 15,000 affiliates, not with you doing the work you’re doing.” (This was a moment I rewound a few times, to make sure I heard it right.) Speaking on the podcast, Royse argued that the line undermined what she saw as a core promise of CrossFit—that it’s for everyone. “It was basically, ‘You got fucked, it’s your fault, you should have made better choices,’ ” she said. “That is our target market” (of people who aren’t already into CrossFit, and might benefit) “and you basically just called them fat, irresponsible fucks.”

In the video’s message, the three podcasters agreed, the social determinants of a person’s ability to commit to CrossFit—money and time to go to the gym, money and time to buy and prepare the right kind of food, having the kind of mental health and life experience that predispose a person to adopt a notoriously rigorous exercise program—fall by the wayside. “This is where having diversity and inclusion in your HQ would come in so well,” Spencer said. “If you have people who have had those experiences” of being unable to start exercising because of life circumstances, “you would have had someone say, ‘This is very marginalizing. I see what you’re trying to do and where you’re coming from, but this is how it could be heard.’ ”

The gym owners I spoke with said that in the context of the pandemic’s unequal impact on the black community, Glassman’s messaging about chronic disease felt particularly off. Another owner who disaffiliated this past week, James Shipman of Charlotte, North Carolina, who is black (and says his gym’s clientele is 95 percent black), put it this way over email: “There are so many contradictions in the ideology that CrossFit is the solution to fighting chronic illness and comorbidities … the same illnesses that impact Black and Brown people at significantly higher rates. You would ASSUME this movement would further push the need to use the CrossFit brand to fight these issues, in these specific communities. Yet, the exact opposite has been shown.”

Noah Abbott, a CrossFit gym owner from Austin, Texas, who disaffiliated this week, described running the calculus as to whether the CrossFit name helps or hurts his efforts. “In CrossFit there has always been an undercurrent of disdain for people who do not want to be as fit as we are. One of the original slogans of CrossFit was ‘Our warm-up is your workout.’ This idea that the shit we do is so much harder than anything you could do. … Like, why would you even walk through our doors?” Abbott, who is white, pointed out. “I’ve always thought about, ‘Is this just turning away people I could help at the same rate that it is introducing people to me who I can help?’ My job is to help more people, right? Are there people who are going to hear ‘CrossFit’ and say, ‘I would never do that’?”

When I asked Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian who studies American fitness culture, what happens to fitness movements when their leaders fail them, the examples she could think of were in yoga: Bikram Choudhury and John Friend, the creator of Anusara yoga. Though CrossFit isn’t as explicitly spiritual as these examples were, there’s something about the way the regimen hits people who fall in love with it that’s similar. Leaders who create new systems of movement like Bikram or CrossFit, Petrzela pointed out, inspire a particular kind of allegiance. “So many people revere these people in a really intimate way,” she said. “It’s how they find their community, through the work they do on their body.”

But, Petrzela said, fitness movements like CrossFit and Bikram can also be about “disconnecting people from their larger place in society, making them think it’s all about them—how hard they’re willing to work, how much pain they’re willing to suffer, and how much they’re willing to commit.” As a CrossFitter of about a year and a half, I can’t deny that the strong feeling of individual agency is one of the appeals of the regimen. In the moment, each WOD is difficult, but when you’re done, you feel wrung out and blissful—like you’re floating on a cloud of well-being. You lose your chronic aches and pains; you cherish the soreness and calluses that replace them. In the exuberance and exhaustion of it, the total transformation, you come to feel that even as time takes its toll on others, you may live forever—if only you keep on doing WODs.

Of course, as the rest of the world outside the four walls of the gym shows us, that’s a delusion. Some of the former CrossFit gyms that disaffiliated are emphasizing the health of the group in their choice of name, replacing “CrossFit” with “Community Fitness.” In the middle of our current crisis, that’s a point well taken.