Column: Do CrossFit’s troubles reflect wider racism in gym culture?
On Wednesday, Greg Glassman, the onetime gymnast who founded the global workout ministry CrossFit in 2000, resigned as the organization’s CEO. In recent weeks, he forfeited his authority to lead by making a series of bigoted statements.
Now CrossFit itself seems to be unraveling. Prominent CrossFit athletes, the faces of the brand, have disavowed Glassman. Reebok, CrossFit’s official outfitter, and Rogue Fitness, one of its equipment suppliers, also have broken ties.
More decisive yet, hundreds of affiliate gyms have ended their relationship with CrossFit, announcing their new direction in social media campaigns that declared Glassman and his company cowardly, callous and canceled.
Glassman’s exposure and demise come as the latest entry in the moral audit of American institutions that was triggered by the killing of George Floyd, the Black security guard who was throttled by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25.
The sweeping, consequential protests against racist policing in response have, above all, laid bare the inhumanity of American law enforcement. But the audit hasn’t stopped there. Other institutions, from the NFL to health services to media outlets, are facing reckonings over racist attitudes and practices.
And now gym culture.
What’s been revealed, so far, is that fitness maestros may maintain such a narrow view of health that those who don’t conform to it, including people of color, can come to represent disease themselves.
One of Glassman’s recent utterances even seemed to blame Floyd for the COVID-19 pandemic. The tweet, in response to a health organization that described racism as a public health issue, said simply “FLOYD-19.”
In the early days of the pandemic, CrossFit released a video that Alyssa Rose, who runs an influential Seattle gym that has now disaffiliated with the brand, described in a post on her gym’s website as “fat-shaming vitriol” that failed to address racial injustice in public health.
According to Rose, the video implied that if you come down with COVID-19, “it’s your fault, you should have been like us.”
On a Zoom call with affiliates, a recording of which was leaked to the media, Glassman can be heard belligerently refusing to condemn racism or police brutality. He snapped at a small group of his colleagues: “We’re not mourning for George Floyd.... Other than it’s the ‘white’ thing to do, I get that pressure, but give me another reason.”
Separately, in a leaked email with another affiliate gym owner, Glassman made it clear that, in the slaying of Floyd, he sides with the police.
Glassman denied being a racist in an apology tweet. Still, he had lost all support, and finally he resigned. “On Saturday I created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members,” he wrote. “Those who know me know that my sole issue is the chronic disease epidemic. I know that CrossFit is the solution to this epidemic.... I cannot let my behavior stand in the way of HQ’s or affiliates’ missions.”
But what if Glassman’s mission itself has a racist edge?
Some of the dissenting CrossFitters have suggested that its chronic-illness agenda is not so noble as it sounds, given that Glassman sometimes pins disease on bigger bodies and people of color.
At the same time, CrossFit does not categorize the injuries its adherents routinely suffer as illness at all. And it has historically laughed off complaints about rhabdomyolysis, a condition that can be induced by punishing workouts in which muscle fiber breaks down, enters the bloodstream and can cause kidney failure,
Glassman has even reportedly promoted the potentially fatal rhabdomyolysis as a sign of health — proof that you’re giving CrossFit your all. By contrast, diseases like diabetes, which disproportionately afflict Black people, are styled by Glassman as the fault of the sufferer.
“Health and wellness have a racism problem,” wrote Erika Nicole Kendall, creator of the blog “A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss,” on the NBC News site Tuesday. Gyms, she went on, are already fraught with judgment, body-shaming, tribalism, adrenaline and physical peril. Racism can inflect all of this.
CrossFit, in particular, has been seen as inhospitable to Black athletes and faced earlier charges of racism in 2013 when it shared on Facebook a post by a so-called “racial realist,” who believes Black people are intrinsically inferior and inclined to violence.
Part of the goal of the sweeping police reform bill unveiled by Democratic lawmakers Monday is to make the police subculture less attractive to the white supremacists who, according to the FBI, have been infiltrating it for years. This can be done by curbing the power of police forces and reducing opportunities for authoritarianism within them.
Can the same be done with workout culture? With CrossFit in particular?
In one of his tirades, Glassman told a gym owner in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, that “systemic racism” has “no meaning.” He went on: “It’s neat to have a problem that can’t be defined because then it never ends.”
Now that Glassman, 63, has retired, he might spend some of his free time studying the problem. For him that will be quite a workout.
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