For well over a week after George Floyd’s death, CrossFit remained silent, even as mass protests swept the country and countless brands pledged solidarity with the Black community. When CrossFit founder Greg Glassman did eventually comment—on an internal Zoom call that was leaked to BuzzFeed News—he floated conspiracy theories, questioned the motives of protestors, and asked gym owners why he should mourn Floyd’s death. “We’re not mourning for George Floyd, I don’t think me or any of my staff are,” he claimed.
Days later, Glassman stepped down as CEO—but not before issuing a controversial tweet that led athletes and gym owners to distance themselves from the brand.
Until now, CrossFit has boasted about 6,000 affiliate gyms across the U.S. But over the past few weeks, hundreds of gym owners—and counting—have severed their relationships with the CrossFit brand, particularly in metropolitan areas like New York City. Even some of CrossFit’s most vocal acolytes, like CrossFit Games champions Katrin Davidsdottir and Rich Froning, have denounced the brand’s response; Reebok, which has been the apparel sponsor for the CrossFit Games since 2011, has ended its partnership. Davidsdottir and others in the CrossFit community had also expressed concerns over Glassman’s sole ownership of the company, though he has since decided to sell the business. (A new report by the New York Times alleges that Glassman was also responsible for fostering a culture of “routine and rampant sexual harassment.”)
Some CrossFit affiliates, however, are waiting to see if the company takes steps to address the concerns of patrons and gym owners. Christopher Sainsbury runs a CrossFit gym in Brooklyn, which he says is the biggest Black-owned location in NYC with more than 300 members—and one of the only gyms in the area that has not yet opted to disaffiliate from the brand. (A CrossFit spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.)
Sainsbury talked to Fast Company about the demands Black CrossFit owners have posed to leadership and why his gym is not cutting ties with the brand just yet. His interview has been edited for space and clarity.
“There’s not that much color in CrossFit”
I’ve been with CrossFit personally, as an athlete, for about 10 years. I’ve owned a gym for about six of those 10 years. We’re located in Brooklyn and are now the biggest Black-owned CrossFit facility in the five boroughs. We get to see a lot of different types of needs of health and fitness, and we just try to do our best to actually apply healthier standards of living to everyone equally, just across the board. I’m also really invested in my youth campaigns. We’re bringing in kids from various different tier one schools—kids that are coming from economically impoverished communities. I’m also trying to open up another CrossFit facility within the corrections facility. Those are my passion projects.
CrossFit changed what fitness looks like for everyone globally. One of the reasons why I became a CrossFitter is the motto is that we bridge communities together through health and fitness. If you come to my gym right now, you’re going to see a brain surgeon, a Black policeman, and Joe Blow the janitor down the block all sharing beers right after the workout. I never thought I would be friends with a brain surgeon. I just thought, “That is not my circle.” But believe it or not, I’m now friends with one of the leading neurosurgeons in New York City.
I went to Rome last year and went to a CrossFit gym. No one spoke English, but I understood exactly what was on the board. When I was at CrossFit Tokyo? Exact same experience.
I love my community. But there’s not that much color in CrossFit. You have this demographic that’s primarily white that Greg Glassman catered to. It makes obvious sense why—CrossFit was originally for first responders. But now that we’re in this current climate of protests, all eyes are on everybody. People wanted to hear what Glassman had to say, because CrossFit is a very community-based organization. He gave us this ambiguous tweet, “FLOYD-19,” but what the hell does that mean? You need to make a stand somewhere.
“What we did is give him four deliverables”
Glassman created this thing where you become your own entrepreneur. But there’s a lack of information to people that are in marginalized communities. As a Black owner, what I would love to see CrossFit do is invest in the communities that actually need it.
Two weeks ago, about 50 Black CrossFit owners around the world got on a call with him. It was a very emotional, heated conversation. He was asked how many Black people are in our office; he said that he didn’t know and had to get back to us. He was asked very specific questions, but he just couldn’t go anywhere with it. He could have very easily said, “This is what we’re going to do. Marginalized communities can’t quite afford CrossFit. Let’s figure out how we can subsidize or how we can bring CrossFit to them.”
As a Black owner, what I would love to see CrossFit do is invest in the communities that actually need it.”
The fourth deliverable was really my idea: branded fitness educational programs within the school system, correctional facilities, and marginalized neighborhoods. Why can’t there be a different business plan to have some people come in at a sliding scale? I don’t believe in free fitness, because I believe there’s a different, tangible feeling that you’re going to have of ownership when you pay. But there are always ways around it.
Dave Castro, the new CEO, has agreed to our demands and is bringing in a third-party diversity board. I’m thankful that he reached out to my gym directly. Prior to my conversation with him, I was skeptical that all we were seeing was a lateral move in the company. I’m now curious to see the type of direction he wants to take. He has pretty much opened up the lines of communication. He has also been extremely vulnerable and said, “I may not have all the answers. But we’re going to get some things started, and we’re going to start moving things forward.”
“If we’re not seeing the type of changes that we need, we will not renew our affiliation”
So now my business partners and I are in a position of: What are we going to do? Especially coming out of COVID-19, when we lost maybe 60% of our membership. We’re just about to reopen in the next couple of weeks, and now my Black constituents may say, “I’m not coming here if it says CrossFit.” I had so many different plans for what I wanted to do for myself and for my community through CrossFit.
Glassman just threw a really big sword down the middle of everything. I may lose business. To be Black-owned and to be associated with CrossFit—not only may I lose business, but I also look like an Uncle Tom. They put me in a very precarious situation as an entrepreneur, because this is my livelihood. This is what I do.
Everybody governs their gyms differently. I think it’s the easy way out to say, “Hey, I’m going to disaffiliate. I’m no longer with you.” A lot of CrossFit’s white constituents did that, like Rich Froning. Anybody with a conscience or visible moral code—regardless of whether they believe in it for the sake of business or who they are in their soul—had to remove themselves, in this climate of George Floyd. You cannot be white and stand next to a racist or somebody who’s being accused of racism. But I think it’s better if we can band together, white and Black alike, and say, “No, this is how we need to attack this.”
We’re giving the organization time. My gym put a public announcement up saying, “If we’re not seeing the type of changes that we need, we will not renew our affiliation with you.” It’s contingent on what they do. Getting people of color in the room is only one ingredient. Is CrossFit willing to make real change with tangible action plans, and use us as ambassadors to these communities? The system Glassman developed really works. The problem is that it’s only been for the select few.
Correction: A previous version of this article said Glassman owned 100% of CrossFit. Glassman has announced that he’s selling the business to CrossFit gym owner and tech executive Eric Roza, who will assume sole ownership next month.