Analysis: CrossFit CEO exits post-controversial tweets but will it help?


CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman will be stepping down and retiring from his position, following his controversial remarks towards George Floyd's death and the pandemic. In an official statement, Glassman said:

“On Saturday I created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members. Those who know me know that my sole issue is the chronic disease epidemic. I know that CrossFit is the solution to this epidemic and that CrossFit HQ and its staff serve as the stewards of CrossFit affiliates worldwide. I cannot let my behaviour stand in the way of HQ’s or affiliates’ missions. They are too important to jeopardise.”

The rift and remarks in question, were his replies to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation which described racism and discrimination as critical public health issues and demanding an “urgent response”. Glassman had replied to the tweet with “It’s FLOYD-19” and called out the institution for its “failed model” that led to a quarantined situation and asked “now you're going to model a solution to racism?”. This sparked several discussions on social media, where majority of the netizens and CrossFit enthusiasts called out the CEO for tying Floyd’s murder to a worldwide pandemic.

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In addition, following his tweets, Reebok said in a statement to CNN Business that it will not be renewing its brand partnership with CrossFit. The sportswear company added that while both parties were in discussions over a new agreement, Reebok has decided to end the partnership “in light of recent events”. According to several media outlets, about 1,000 gyms such as Intrepid Athletics and Rogue Fitness, among others, have distanced and disaffiliated themselves from CrossFit, and felt that Glassman’s response was “unprofessional and inappropriate”.

Prior to Glassman’s controversial views, CrossFit was in the midst of criticism for not addressing and supporting the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US. While global brands around the world were taking a stand and calling for racial equality, CrossFit neglected to address the matter at hand. 

However, in lieu of Glassman's retirement, incoming CEO Dave Castro released a statement CrossFit is a community — one that is global, diverse, and tough, and that every person in the community shares a common bond. "Our community is hurt, though. Our shared bond brings together millions of people with differing opinions, viewpoints, and experiences. Friction is inevitable. Common ground, mutual respect, and fellowship must also be inevitable. I’m honoured to take on the role of CEO of CrossFit. I hope to do right by affiliates, trainers, athletes, and other members of the CrossFit community around the world and never lose sight of the mission Glassman established for us all," he added. 

Is resurrection at all possible?

The issue is a pretty bad one, more so because it is an issue that is close to the hearts of a lot to people at this point in time and it is a question of what values one hold as humans, Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG Singapore said. Yeo added that Glassman chose his words poorly, but even though he founded CrossFit, the question here is if his views really representative of the company?

“It is very rare that companies and brands are unable to recover from issues, unless that particular issue goes to the core of what makes the brand great. That's not to say business won't be affected. Nonetheless, if Samsung can recover from their phones literally exploding, safe to say most businesses can recover if they fundamentally make good products,” he explained.

Yeo added that the CrossFit brand became successful not because of its political stand, but because people loved its regimen. Despite the controversy it is currently embroiled in, why people initially fell in love with it will not change. However there will be an immediate resistance because business partners do not want to be associated with a brand that is not on the right side of a moral issue. As such,

CrossFit first has to convince its partners that the CEO's statement was personal, and does not represent the company, and ensure no competitor move in to fill this void in the meantime.

The sustainability of the business, Yeo explained, is largely dependent on associate gyms partners, and it would be wise to also note that it has 15,000 of those worldwide, of which only 1,000 have expressed that they want to end the association. So there is, no doubt, an urgency to publicly distance themselves from the kind of sentiments expressed by Glassman before the other 14,000 starts feeling uncomfortable.

Stating their political, or A-political, stance clearly would be a good start, followed with getting employees to vouch for how the company has always treated them fairly, would be another important step. This will show that racism is not systemic within CrossFit. “Ultimately, it is a regimen that people do like, and that will not change just because of a thoughtless remark made by a CEO. People and partners just need to know that the company itself isn't racist so that they themselves don't suffer as a result of an association with CrossFit,” Yeo added. 

Agreeing with Yeo, Jeremy Seow, MD, Growth and Innovation, Asia Pacific at Allison+Partners said acknowledging and taking steps to correct their actions are essential first steps for the CrossFit brand. The company needs to take this time to re-define its mission, vision and values moving forward. "Doing that requires a deeper understanding of their community of stakeholders’ current motivations and values. And once done, invest in the time and energy to communicate this to everyone internally and externally that needs to hear from them again," he added.

Seconding Seow, Lars Voedisch, managing director at PRecious Communications said to overcome a situation like this, the brand has to overdo what’s needed to show its community that it’s not just lip service but thorough assessment of what the brand and its leaders and affiliates stand for.

This is a process that goes way beyond a one-time statement.

According to Voedisch, CrossFit’s statement includes its commitment to scrutinising itself internally, continuing to listen to the community, and taking actions in support of change, and the company now has to follow through from top to bottom.

“I do not believe that the CEO stepping down might be enough. The company would have to go the extra mile in ensuring that his comments are not reflective of the brand’s values or the leadership team,” he added.