The close of the 2020 CrossFit Games seemed like the perfect time to write a piece capturing the tumultuousness of the year for the CrossFit brand and to cast a hopeful light on 2021. After all, despite a global pandemic and a deep dive into social injustices, the 2020 Games still managed to happen, many gyms found creative ways to stay open, and we have new leadership at the top of the organization. There’s a lot to look forward to. And yet, every time I went to finish the piece I set out to write, it became increasingly difficult to talk about the brand.
In the most basic summation: this year hasn’t made it easy to cover “business as usual” subject matter in the space. The gravity of the social problems in the CrossFit community has left some of us in a purgatory state, being more ‘observant’ than ‘participatory’ in day-to-day developments. Using my personal experience as an example, more of my time has been spent resenting what happened at the tail end of Greg Glassman’s era at the helm of CrossFit instead of looking forward to the work Eric Roza will do to right the ship. It’s made writing about and commentating on the community and the sport difficult, and it’s part of the reason this is my umpteenth draft of this piece.
The concept of ‘gym deserts’
It would be one thing if we were still seeing the tremendous work of the community at the gym level, but the gyms in many neighborhoods (like my area of Brooklyn) haven’t survived the tribulations of COVID-19 closures. In fact, I live in an area that’s as much a ‘gym desert’ as it is a ‘food desert’. I, like many, don’t have reliable access to a variety of fitness and nutrition options in my neighborhood, which is why discussions about equality and inclusion in fitness and nutrition strikes, quite literally, close to home.
The catch-22 of an under-served community (whether ethnic, financial, geographic, or any combination of the three) is that you have to have access to the community in order to have a voice in the community.
Elevating diverse voices
The CrossFit community itself seems to be most-impacted by influencers in certain tranches. At the macro-level, leaders like Eric Roza and Nicole Carroll have the direct resources of the brand (like their social media pages, YouTube channels, etc.) to effect change and drive a belief system within the community. At the micro-level, individual gym owners and coaches have the ability to directly influence their smaller communities. People in their shoes can either accept and disseminate the top-down narrative and guidance from CrossFit’s leadership, or accept the fitness regime and reject its new social themes.
Independent of those two tranches are CrossFit’s athletes and media influencers: hundreds of hard-working community members with personal brands, varying backgrounds and social beliefs, and millions of followers between them. They choose to tell their own stories and pick their narratives, but they have the ability to be an echo chamber in elevating voices asking for social change in their bubbles. Katrin Davidsdottir and Noah Ohlsen chose to boycott the CrossFit Games until leadership changes happened within the organization. John Wooley and Niki Brazier refocused the “Make Pods Great Again” podcast to share more-diverse voices.
It’s through efforts like this, and the change in top-down narrative from Eric Roza at CrossFit, that we can address under-served communities and voices. This happens by inspiring the opening of gyms and community fitness programs in areas never before included, and actively seeking an understanding of why a neighborhood like Crown Heights, Brooklyn doesn’t have reliable access to unprocessed foods and a gym practicing this approach to fitness.
Digital fitness isn’t synonymous with ‘access’
Sure, you can make the argument that these workouts are available online and all it takes is a Google search, your bodyweight, and a moderate-sized park to write yourself into the community. That argument is spoken most-often from someone who has never had to practice fitness outdoors during a northeastern winter.
Our words matter
Circling back to why this piece became so difficult to write: as multimedia creators in the space our content has real impact and consequences in the community. For example, I’ve been very careful to curate my content around mindful activism in fitness and nutrition. Awareness of how those themes impact an audience means I have a responsibility to weigh every word I write, the influence of every leader I quote, and every privilege I have that enables me to create this content. That responsibility can feel mountainous.
Eric Roza’s CrossFit
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Yes, CrossFit’s new owner and CEO Eric Roza seems to be the ideal leader for the company if it’s to grow out of the Greg Glassman chrysalis and become a butterfly. The message from Roza seems no longer singularly-focused on the availability of CrossFit as a treatment for chronic illness, but also as a treatment for social injustice that’s inherent in our health system and neighborhoods.
This year’s national focus on racial injustice and sexual harassment has worked to educate us that these problems don’t go away with the snap of our fingers or by posting a black box on Instagram. They’re not problems you can condemn and move on from – they’re things you need to actively talk about or you’ll just keep fertilizing the problem and propagating the voices of the problem children.
Renewing faith in the brand
Therein lies the crux of today’s realization: CrossFit isn’t the problem. Under Eric Roza, CrossFit is potentially the best possible solution to disparity in access to fitness: it has the gyms, it has the lobbyists, and it has the fanatical ambassadors. The problem is whether or not our words, and the words of other influencers in the community, become complacent in our work. By opening up and writing the feel-good “what to look for in 2021” piece, we’re no longer inspiring the community to reinforce the changes we’ve been asking for.
Does the disappearance of the narrative end the incentive we’ve fostered for the brand to continue down the path Roza has been paving? Where’s the line drawn? At what point does holdout for change in our system cross paths with enough actual change that it becomes okay for us to stop being the observant activist and become a new form of ‘mindfully-participatory’?
There is no correct answer. And, of course, the answer will be different for everyone. With acknowledgement that this is an existential crisis on paper, let’s close with this:
- We love the CrossFit brand.
- We love the people behind the CrossFit brand.
- We love the community CrossFit has built and the way it’s working to change lives.
Addressing sexual harassment and social inequality is something we should never stop doing. It should be inherent in the way we carry ourselves on social media, the way we coach, and the way we interact with everyone inside and outside our gyms. CrossFit has given us a template to be better. We just have to use it.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured image from @CrossFit on Instagram, photo by Charlotte Foerschler