CrossFit CEO and CrossFit community rift is reflective of larger split in these United States

It starts with a tweet…

Oy. Of course it does.

I was Greg Glassman’s lawyer for 8+ years at CrossFit. I was his first General Counsel and an early CrossFit Affiliate before that. I met Greg when I showed up to compete in the first CrossFit Games in Aromas, California, on Dave Castro’s family’s ranch. It was 2007 and I was on leave from the Marine Corps. I had been following CrossFit since 2005 when I found it during my time in Afghanistan. A number of operators at the base I was at were also doing it and the results were undeniable. Those guys were machines, and the war demanded being as fit as possible. I got hooked.

As gyms started to reopen across the country in recent weeks, the IHME (the same ‘scientists’ that brought us the original models that prompted the lockdowns) decided that they needed to defend some of the public pushback about the rather profound lack of social distancing going on at some of these demonstrations/protests/riots. Suddenly, COVID-19 has a conscience. And they (the IHME) are now going to “model” the impacts of “systemic racism.” That doesn’t seem exactly wise… or even scientific.

Glassman’s “FLOYD-19” reply tweet was the shot heard round the Twittersphere.

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People tend to forget that the CrossFit Affiliate program, the Level 1 Certificate Course (formerly Seminar Program, pre-ANSI certification days), and even CrossFit itself, have early ties to law enforcement. When Greg was just a personal trainer and there was only one CrossFit gym – his –  landing a contract to train the Santa Cruz Country sheriff’s department was a great get. That was in the mid- to late-1990s. One of the earliest seminar attendees, and CrossFit Affiliate owners, was T.J. Cooper of CrossFit East. T.J. Cooper, for the record, is black. He is also a longtime friend and a police officer. CrossFit East was the Affiliate name for the police department where T.J. hosted workouts and made cops in Jacksonville, Florida, fitter for their jobs and better for their communities. It’s easy to forget that there are CrossFit “Hero” workouts named for police officers, like black police officer “Randy” Simmons, a 27 year veteran of LAPD and LAPD SWAT.

The idea that Glassman is a racist is so absurd it feels bizarre to entertain it. It’s a terrible claim to have made against anyone – ever. In the current zeitgeist, however, if you don’t come out and declare your NON-RACISM soon enough, or loudly enough, you get the public struggle session. Witness Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s bizarre performance art where the mob shouts “Shame! Shame!” – from Game of (bleeping) Thrones, of all things! – because Frey said he didn’t support defunding the police. He slinks away like Circe, but with his clothes on, a white kid surrounded by angry black protestors.

Now it’s Glassman’s turn in the barrel. Of course, one can say that he brought it on himself with that ambiguous and ill-timed response to the IHME. But I never thought I’d see “Glassman’s a Racist!!” from a bloc of his own Affiliates. He hasn’t been quick enough to mutter the shibboleths about “systemic racism” in the United States or condemn the police.

This for a guy who in 2013 went to Kenya repeatedly to build schools for black people in the Rift Valley. When he came back, he got in front of his Affiliates and asked them to do the same: donate money, hold their own fundraisers in their communities, and build schools and cisterns for black people in Kenya. It was simply par for the course with Greg Glassman.

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Everywhere we went and met Affiliates, they always asked for his help. He couldn’t say no – Ever. People came to know me as the guy grimacing in the background whenever an Affiliate asked ‘Coach’ for CrossFit HQ’s help with something. Many times it came out of his own pocket. Once we were at an Affiliate’s gym – we just sopped in on a whim while traveling – and they were holding a fundraiser for someone in the gym who needed a wheelchair. Tragedy had struck a member of their small gym community and they were doing what Greg had taught them: hold an event, come together for a workout, and pass the hat for a family or person in need. Greg sidled over to me and quietly asked me to run back to where we had parked his truck: “Get my checkbook out of the glovebox,” he whispered while shaking hands and posing for pictures. He wrote a personal check for the remainder of the $10K that was needed – more than half. He couldn’t help himself; he didn’t know how to say “No.”

The schools in Africa was the idea of a brother of one of Greg’s Affiliate owners. The young man was a Mormon kid, doing his mission in Africa, and he came up to Greg at a skiing event in Park City, Utah. I was right there and can still see Greg’s face looking over at me, kinda sheepishly grinning to my grimace: he’d already said yes before I could get there. “We can build some schools in Africa, right D?”  he grinned at me. It was vintage Glassman. “Sure, we can!” I said, my lawyer-stomach doing butterflies.

I had no idea how we were going to build schools in Africa.

But Greg went to Africa, repeatedly. He met people, he saw the need, he paid for others on his staff to go, and, in the end, he couldn’t say no. Eventually, we found out what everyone finds out who tries to do charity work in Africa, from Bono to the UN, but Greg didn’t regret the energy and efforts. He knew it might be a losing cause from the beginning. El Shabbab, the militant terrorist group, was on the move in the region and the Christians in Kenya were on the run. The villages we were helping would likely be overcome, eventually. Greg told me once that it was worth it, that the experiment “showed the Affiliates they could have impact on the other side of the world! For a people of a different language, culture, and skin color, with a deep need. Look what you can do 15,000 miles away! Think of what you can do in your own neighborhoods.”

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When tragedy came to his own neighborhood, Greg did the same thing. 19 firefighters from Prescott, Arizona – where Greg owned a house – died tragically in the Yarnell, Arizona, wildfires June 28-30, 2013. It was the worst loss of life for firefighters since 9/11. The Granite Mountain “hotshots” were firefighters* – and CrossFitters – who inserted themselves into wildfires to cut firebreaks and divert/stop their spread. They burned to death, huddled together in the last patch of grass left when the fires overran them. As of the 4 year anniversary for the Hotshots 19 workout in 2017, its website claimed to have collected over $335,000 dollars.

It never stopped; it never did when I was his lawyer. A young girl named Kate Foster lost her leg to cancer. She was a gymnast and loved CrossFit. Greg found about her, gave generously of his own money, and then mobilized Affiliates to donate to St. Jude’s for kids with cancer. The community raised enough to cover a day of operating expenses for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital: around a million or two. Every year the CrossFit Community has done “Murph” on Memorial Day, a workout to honor Mike Murphy, a CrossFitter and Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan and whose heroism was captured by Marcus Luttrell’s book and the movie “Lone Survivor.”

When firefighters in the Community, particularly in southern states, told him about the tragedy of drowning, we raised awareness around childhood drowning across the United States. He partnered with Infant Swim Resource to get parents to teach their young children how to float (‘drown proof’). He even put his own kids through it, filmed them passing their “final exam” – being dropped in the pool in their clothes, flipping onto their backs, and kicking to the side – and then he posted it on the CrossFit.com site. None of it was without controversy. He tried to find ways to fund programs to help kids in inner cities get the training. 1 of every 5 drowning is a kid under 14; for every 1 who drowns, another 5 kids have had a “submersion injury” and have brain damage and lifelong disabilities.

I know, I know… a terrible guy. He’s not out there doing anything about “systemic racism.” Slacker.

People saying Glassman doesn’t care about people of color should be embarrassed. He’s been yelling about the disparate health impacts of diabetes and hyper-insulin related illnesses on communities of color for years. And trying to open gyms to make an impact in the best way he knows: with fitness… because that’s what he does. A few years ago we were in New Zealand – the Maori people, the native tribes, have (technically) been at war with the New Zealand government and they were working on a peace treaty. We happened to be visiting and one of the tribal leaders wanted to know if CrossFit could help with the destructive impact of diabetes on the natives. I didn’t even need to hear the rest to know what Greg would do. Of course. He did the same thing back in the United States, traveling to Native American Reservations in Oklahoma, meeting with elders and leaders, trying to find ways CrossFit boxes could help on the “Rezis.”

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I haven’t checked recently, but the last time I looked there were somewhere around 7500 CrossFit Affiliates in the United States. Because they’re not chains, but individually owned and operated businesses, each gym tends to have its own unique personality. They’re in strip malls, in big cities and the burbs, in remote areas, barns, houses, light industrial spaces, former gas stations, high rises, garages, and all kinds of other arrangements, including police stations and military bases. It includes a pretty wide variety of personalities, as well, from SpecOps trigger-pullers to old women, and everywhere in between. Given its maculate origins in California, it also attracts people with a lot of different politics. Controversy is nothing new for Glassman or CrossFit, but racist/systemic racism is the firebomb du jour of the Twittersphere.

What is the guy supposed to do? How much more can a guy do for others, including for Black people? How much is enough for the new Woke Thought-Guardians? Now we all have to take “sides” – and they’re not even sides we picked or got to define. You either start screaming RACISM! and demonize and denounce every cop in the country – or you’re cancelled. Is Glassman supposed to wade into the fray and choose between his “woke” Affiliates and his police Affiliates – the latter being the ones who helped build CrossFit, the guys and gals that were there from the beginning? Freddie Camacho was a long time police officer from just south of San Francisco, bristling in muscles and covered in tattoos when I met him at the CrossFit Games in 2007. To look at him, you could easily mistake which side of the law he’s on. One of his fellow female officers, Jolie Gentry, won the women’s side of the first CrossFit Games.

Glassman’s got CrossFit Affiliates on all sides of these convergent and divergent, whipsaw “emergencies.” Is there some Racism Kommissar out there watching and waiting: “What? Glassman said he’s against systemic racism? Well, there we go. Finally! Okay. It’s all better now.” What does his pronouncement add? Why does anyone even care what Greg Glassman, or CrossFit Affiliates, think about these issues?

Some observations:

  1. There seems to have been a loss of the familial nature of the Community, where we had gyms owned by addicts, alongside gyms owned by the cops who might have arrested them. That’s a trippy thing to consider, but we’ve had lots of gyms owned by people with records – minorities, young men from inner cities, many who found in CrossFit an opportunity and a clean slate, a lack of judgment about their past. They could make a good living as trainers and even become respectable business owners in their communities. That seems to have been lost in all of this.
  2. CrossFit was always “color-blind.” It was how it grew and thrived. We sent camera crews to document women’s only CF gyms in Muslim Sharia countries. We did Media on Affiliates living on opposite sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and tried to find ways to bring them together. I spent almost two years – me, former Marine – living in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) opening CrossFit gyms, at Glassman’s personal request in 2017-18.
  3. Fitness transcended politics for us; it had to or we could never have grown the way we did around the world.We tried to find ways around the U.S. government’s ban on business in Iran, when an Iranian doing CrossFit in Iran contacted us, wanting to become an “official part of the Community.” Greg didn’t want to leave a single “CrossFitter” outside of “the Community.”
  4. You can believe deeply in the need for real police reform, work for it like some of us did and still do, in courtrooms and on a case-by-case, and also still know and love great people who are cops. This Us v. Them, you’re either with me or against me mindset isn’t sustainable, nor is it a solution to any problem in the CrossFit Community or the broader U.S. around police and the communities they serve.

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Chuck Carswell was a former standout football player for the University of Georgia Bulldogs. He went on to play safety for the Miami Dolphins. He is cooler than Shaft and the longest tenured voice of Greg Glassman’s vaunted Level I Seminar Staff. He’s done more seminars in front of CF’s most important customers – the people who attend its Level I seminars – than even Glassman himself. Chuck is beloved wherever he goes. It’s hard to imagine a racist having the single-most respected and prevalent face of his brand be a black guy. Of course, that’s because Glassman isn’t a racist. He is, however, in between a rock and a hard place with his Affiliates and this current strife.

The government-mandated lockdowns across the United States in the wake of COVID-19 wreaked a swath of destruction across the fitness industry that is probably hard to fully appreciate if you’re not in that industry. Running a CrossFit gym – a gym of any kind, or a martial arts school, or gymnastics school, as well – those are already tough margins. Every gym owner got hit hard. The lucky ones might have gotten some forbearance from their commercial landlord, but the unlucky ones might have found a landlord looking for an excuse to terminate a lease. Some states have begun to open back up and some of the gyms are coming back, but many will not.

George Floyd’s death was yet another terrible incident between law enforcement and the citizenry. Many of us, Glassman included, have long advocated for ending the War on Drugs, asset forfeiture, and for having courts reconsider the judicially created doctrine of qualified immunity for police – all of these things fall disproportionately on minority communities, particularly in big cities. No knock warrants are another bad idea, and the relationship between police unions and politicians, as well as having DAs in the same town investigating and prosecuting the cops of the department that gathers the DA’s evidence: all are a recipe for bad outcomes. And yes, there are undoubtedly racists sprinkled in among some forces.

But who bears responsibility for this mess? Why is Greg Glassman, or Elon Musk, or any business owner anywhere on the hook for any of this? Where are the people who have actually been running the police, the alderman, political leaders…? you know, the people actually getting paid by tax dollars to deal with these issues?? In Derrick Chauvin’s case, who was the AG of the state when multiple excessive force complaints were filed against Chauvin? Oh, Democratic Presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. How… strange. How was Kamala Harris’s record as a prosector and AG of California? Where was the “systemic racism” then… or did “systemic racism” just arrive on our shores last week, like the COVID? Who sponsored the 1994 crime bill that was directly responsible for so much of the disparate impact that policing had on blacks in inner cities in the decades that followed? It wasn’t Greg Glassman; for the record, it was Joe “If you don’t vote for me, you ain’t black!” Biden.

Greg and I are both old enough to have clear memories of “systemic racism” in the U.S. from the late 60s and 70s. Back then protestors screamed that what was needed for “systemic racism” was more black officers and leaders. Changes to the “force composition” in the 70’s and 80s was touted as the answer to that version of “systemic racism.” Baltimore – and a ton of other Democratically controlled metropolises – New York, Chicago, Detroit, all said that more people of color in leadership and on The Force would help solve their “systemic racism” problem. Those cities have now been controlled by one political party for decades – one, with an absolute hammer-lock on jobs, leadership, budgeting, you name it. So, how has that worked out? Shaun King recently dared to tweet this unspeakable truth, and about how blacks should be careful in how they vote in the upcoming election. Which brings us back to a question of responsibility: why is any of this Greg Glassman’s fault? He wasn’t running the police departments in the past decades: Bill de Blasio was when Eric Garner was suffocated over the possibility he was selling “loosies” – single cigarettes – because NYC’s cigarette taxes are so high they’ve created a black market for poor people who can only afford single cigarettes.

George Floyd’s hagiography is missing the point; he never even made it to the station. He may very well have committed a crime by using a counterfeit bill – but you don’t get the death penalty for counterfeiting, and the police are responsible for your safety once you’re in their custody. The Constitution enshrines our rights to due process of law. Do people screaming at others in the name of George Floyd think that hectoring people publicly – with no pretense of due process – somehow honors his memory? This is what’s going to help fix the “systemic racism?”

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All of this, the lockdowns, the protests, it’s all a complete aside from what CrossFit, Inc., and what CrossFit Affiliates, does and do. They’re businesses: gyms train people and make them fitter. CrossFit runs educational courses, the CrossFit Games, content, etc. for its Affiliates and community. Local gyms provide a community for their members and families…

…What they are not, however, nor should they ever be, is a place for politics. I don’t want politics in my gym in the same way I don’t want it at my jiu jitsu school, or my kids’ gymnastics classes, piano lessons, or my ice hockey league. It has no place in any of those settings; it is in the completely wrong magisterium and milieu. What’s befallen some CrossFit Affiliate owners is a sense that their business is now a place, and platform, for political advocacy. They’ve truly made politics personal – and the mob is cheering it on at full volume. Maybe you can have a sufficiently large community of like-minded political devotees to have a successful gym, but it sure doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. Not to me, anyway.

If gyms really wanted to make a difference, why couldn’t they simply do what Glassman’s showed them how to do all along? Maybe the Wokesters could reach out to the Affiliates run by LEOs and have an event to raise money, maybe help black business owners who have had theirs burned down, or help fund efforts to rebuild these communities? Maybe start by acknowledging that there are good people in the CF Community; even and especially among its LEOs, who live and work in those communities, and would love to come together to build communities up, not burn them down.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I don’t work there any more; I’m not in Greg’s (currently) rather warm  seat. Asking, nay, demanding that he take a public stance is to put him in the position of having to call people he knows – his friends and Affiliate owners – “racists” when he knows they’re not. Notwithstanding the uproar on Media, I suspect he may be getting many emails of support from Affiliates who are owned by cops and LEOs, friends of many years. They’ll probably just lay low until the outrage mob moves on to a new target.

He’ll still have my friendship. I’ve known him too long, and too well, to let even the public calumny change that. There’s nothing racist about him – he’s a man with a deep love for humanity; most especially those who’ll take his advice on workouts and diet. He’s also always been a contrarian with a quick lip, but a huge heart – and Affiliates used to love him for it.

Maybe he’ll lose a sizable portion of Affiliates. He’s got 7500 in the US. If it settles out at… I don’t know… 6,000, or even 5,000, would it be the end of all things CrossFit? No. I was there when it was smaller than that; we all still made a living and had fun – a LOT of fun, in fact. Maybe even moreso than later on, when it got bigger; or now, when public shaming for not reciting the proper Progressive dogma became the order of the day.

In my opinion, a little less public attention on politics, and a little more focus on making people fit would be just the antidote for… you know… a fitness company, and its community of (supposedly) like-minded, small gym owners. It always has been in the past.

I can’t predict the future, but I will make one Mark Messier-like guarantee: exactly zero problems we confront in our society will be solved on or by social media.

*I originally described the Hotshots as “smokejumpers,” but that is incorrect. The article has been updated to correct the error. (Hat tip to Alex Anglin for the catch).

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