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Whither CrossFit: Sunday musings…

Sunday musings…

Oh my.

This morning my first outside interaction was a quick note from one of my sons: “CrossFit shit storm”. Though it has been several years since I have had any meaningful association with official CrossFit I did a quick perusal of social media and up popped the story. CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman had replied to an Instagram post about the death of George Floyd and the public health implications of systemic racism with a rather flippant statement combining the two great mega-issues before us today: COVID-19 and the national unrest that has followed Mr. Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer. Already under fire for not “adequately” publicly responding to the devastating economic effects of the corona virus lockdowns on CrossFit Affiliate gyms, Coach Glassman essentially ladled accelerant on the flames.

Like so many things “CrossFit” over the years, this episode has multiple layers that touch on much more than what we see on the surface. My own CrossFit journey began in 2005, a time in which CF was little more than a tiny underground movement with a equally tiny group of nearly underground fitness “rebels” fighting what felt like a righteous enemy in the entrenched fitness (and nutrition) community, led by a brash iconoclast who reveled in conflict. Conflict that he routinely initiated, mind you. While I have never been employed by CrossFit, Inc. in any manner I was certainly an “insider”, comfortable in the “halls” of CF HQ as well as in the spaces CrossFitters call Boxes, CrossFit Gyms. My role such as it may have been, was to speak as a friendly fellow traveler to those in the CF community. Kind of a “Goodwill Ambassador” to both insiders and outsiders alike.  It was a role that I created, one that was by turns encouraged and barely tolerated by Mr. Glassman and others in HQ, until it wasn’t. A few years ago it was time to step away.

It’s been quite awhile since “CrossFit” has been mentioned in Sunday musings or Random Thoughts. Why now? As a longtime participant and observer who now has literally nothing invested in anything CrossFit (with the exception of several life-long friendships made in my earliest years there) I thought I might add a bit of perspective to what is happening at the moment for the benefit of those who are relatively new to the movement and the business known collectively as CrossFit. In particular I am hopeful that this perspective will be helpful to my fellow physicians, especially those who have recently come to the CrossFit world as part of their personal battle on the front lines of healthcare, fighting one person at a time to keep their patients alive and healthy. Again please note that I am speaking for myself; I do not speak on behalf of CrossFit, Inc.

In order to begin to understand how to interpret this week’s events in the CrossFit world one must first understand and acknowledge that “CrossFit” is not an omnibus term that means or encompasses one single thing. Rather, CrossFit is and has always been three interrelated entities. It is first, and foremost, a fitness methodology. “Constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity” designed to enhance and increase fitness. “Fitness” in the CrossFit sense is further defined as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains”: how far can you move how much, how fast. Countless trees have been sacrificed and electrons unleashed in debating whether there is anything unique, or even new, about the first part, the methodology. I’ve long counted myself in the camp that the “how” of CrossFit the system is indeed different and new; very smart, kind and considerate people both agree and disagree with me on that, which is more than OK.

Defining fitness was arguably a true “first”, and in so doing Mr. Glassman created a platform of a sort. More than that, by defining fitness CrossFit created a way that fitness might be measured. The CrossFit “Curve” of fitness attributes theoretically gives us the opportunity to measure an individual’s level of fitness by calculating the “area under the curve”. While this has proven to be more challenging than originally thought, this measurement gave birth to the second of the three distinct entities under the CrossFit umbrella: The Sport of Fitness. If you can measure something you can turn it into a competition. With what can only be described as a barbecue at which a bunch of folks engaged in friendly games from the gym was born what we’ve come to know as The CrossFit Games (note: I foolishly turned down a personal invitation to attend, thereby missing what is arguably the most pure expression of the “CrossFit Community” before or since).

While my view of the Games and the “Gamesification” of CrossFit was originally quite contrarian (conventional stance: the Games did more to bring awareness to CF than anything before or since), it was clear to me that the emphasis on competition drove CF away from  what was clearly its early drive to improve health. Indeed, the loud introduction of the CrossFit definition of health (Fitness over time) was drowned out by all things “Games”. As far back as 2010 I publicly (here on my blog) and privately encouraged a re-dedication to the kind of fitness and health discussions and emphasis seen on the CrossFit Forum in the earlier days of CrossFit. The introduction of CrossFit for Health along with a seminar program specifically aimed at practicing physicians was a welcome pivot by CrossFit, Inc. back to its roots.

Which brings us to the third leg of the three-legged stool that is “CrossFit”: CrossFit, the business. CrossFit, Inc. is a combination of an educational business and an affiliate business in which independent gym owners pay a fee to use the “CrossFit” banner as a part of their brand. In return for a relatively modest fee (in comparison with franchise fees) a CrossFit affiliate is enabled to operate with rather minimal rules (in comparison with the franchise model) regarding the actual practice of “CrossFit” the fitness modality. CrossFit the business is a one-man shop when it comes to corporate direction. The face of CrossFit was, is, and will be Greg Glassman until such time as he decides otherwise.

Nothing that transpired this week is new or unique. Mr. Glassman marches to his own drum. More than that, once he has chosen his particular beat he pounds that drum loudly, regardless of how his audience responds. On occasion even his good intentions are drowned out by his drumming; it is often tone deaf and off-key, (if asked my bet is that he truly felt he was being supportive of protesters against racism). Many in the CrossFit universe feel that Mr. Glassman’s views on the national protests about racism and police brutality are flat-out wrong. Disappointment and anger are the public sentiments. A wish to separate from CrossFit expressed. This has happened before, albeit on issues much less global and at times when CrossFit was much tinier in all ways. Mr. Glassman is nothing if not consistent. When his views run counter to prevailing views he has typically doubled down rather than withdraw. I have never seen him back down, no matter how tiny the corner that he has backed into may become. Expecting anything different this week is as fruitful as expecting the sunrise to hold off because you got to bed a bit later than usual and need a few more hours of sleep.

And so, whither CrossFit? It is not my place to suggest to CrossFit, Inc. how it should proceed. It never was. Nor is it my place to suggest to any of you who might read my drivel how you should respond to what comes from Mr. Glassman or CrossFit, Inc. CrossFit, and Mr. Glassman, will address the issue of systemic racism and associated mistreatment of Black Americans by a faction of the police force, or they won’t. Both are incomprehensible to me, a middle-aged white man who has acknowledged (and written) about a lifetime free of the concerns of racism and the likelihood of harm at the hands of a police officer. Like white bread I am of no particular distinction in the eyes of those who would judge one by how one looks. I am bland; I don’t register. I can not empathize, I can only be as sympathetic as possible. And so, like most of White America I struggle with how to actionably express my dismay at such things. To in some way give not lip service but be of real, actionable service in the hard work necessary to effect change here.

As for CrossFit, my views on the gamesification of CrossFit (not a great thing) and the recent pivot back to emphasizing health (a good thing) have been consistent over many years now. CrossFit, the methodology is still, when followed according to its original spirit and intent (and perhaps even better,  how it has evolved in the hands of several OG’s no longer affiliated with CF), the best overall fitness program I have encountered in a lifetime of fitness and athletics. This is the part that I do want to suggest. Constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity following the progression of form, then consistency, and then intensity, is still transformative, especially if it is accompanied by a diet low in processed foods and sugar, also encouraged by the CrossFit modality. This is separate, and separable, from the business of CrossFit and the public (and private) missives of the founder and CEO of CrossFit, Inc.

Understanding what “CrossFit” is will hopefully assist you in evaluating what it means to you and how you will choose to interact with all three of the very distinct entities that in combination constitute “CrossFit”. One can simultaneously, honorably, both do and disavow “CrossFit”.

I’ll see you next week…

St. bingo of the Sweaty Angel (ret.)

2 Responses to “Whither CrossFit: Sunday musings…”

  1. June 7th, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Doug says:

    Thoughtful piece, but If I might offer constructive feedback, your including the specifics of Glassman’s two social media posts/responses early on would have provided helpful context, especially for people unfamiliar with him or CrossFit. Curmudgeonly is one thing; demeaning and incredibly juvenile are next level. Thank you for posting in any event.

  2. June 7th, 2020 at 8:04 pm

    drwhite says:

    Hi Doug. Thank you for the suggestion. I specifically chose not to do so. I was really speaking more to my former (original?) audience in the CrossFit world. They have a context within which to view not only his public posts but also the emails that have been made public and the backstories therein. It would have been difficult to produce enough links to allow that type of insight to bring to the post. Someone outside that world could certainly use this post to launch a deeper look. Tenor, tone, and content of Coach Glassman’s posts and emails has long been an issue in the Crossfit world. Fall-out continues. My son just sent a notice that Reebok has severed ties. I appreciate your reading my post, and greatly appreciate that you took the time to offer a suggestion that is both appropriate and reasonable. Cheers.

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