CrossFit gym chain caught up in LGBTQ rights controversy, religious friction

  • CrossFit has built an exercise empire of more than 13,000 locations around the world.
  • One of its employees was fired on Wednesday for tweeting support of an affiliate owner in Indianapolis who canceled an LGBTQ Pride workout at his gym.
  • CrossFit founder and CEO Greg Glassman called the events 'appalling' and said the whole company is 'upset.'
  • The Indianapolis gym, CrossFit Infiltrate, announced its closing.

CrossFit, the fitness company that has developed a cultlike devotion around its outspoken founder and CEO Greg Glassman, is under scrutiny after an affiliated gym in Indianapolis, CrossFit Infiltrate, was instructed by its local owner to cancel their LGBTQ Pride workout.

CrossFit has more than 13,000 affiliate gyms in over 120 countries worldwide, and CrossFit Infiltrate's Pride Month workout was one of hundreds scheduled to take place across the country this month.

Crossfit founder and CEO Greg Glassman (R)
Linda Davidson | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Crossfit founder and CEO Greg Glassman (R)

During the last week of May, CrossFit Infiltrate's manager and coaches created a Pride workout event and publicized it on the gym's Instagram and Facebook accounts. The workout was scheduled for Thursday.

On June 1, less than a week before the workout event, members received an email from Johnnie Martin, the gym's manager, saying director and owner Brandon Lowe had decided to cancel the Pride event. It read:

"Our underlying goal for the staff and members at CrossFit Infiltrate and our other gyms CrossFit White river and University Ave CrossFit is total health and well-being for the individual and community. Total health involves the body, the emotions, relationships, and the spirit. At the foundational detractor from health, as we believe God sets the parameters for, is pride. We believe that true health forever can only be found within humility, not pride. Humility is seeing oneself as they truly are, and as God truly defines them to be. As a business we will choose to deploy our resources towards those efforts and causes that line up with our own values and beliefs."

On Sunday, June 3, Pride workout organizer and CrossFit Infiltrate gym member Ryan Nix posted a call to action on Facebook:

"Last week we received an email from the gym cancelling our PRIDE workout. We emailed the owner since it seemed that there was an issue with people who may be LGBT. You can see from his response that there is. Since this time the coaches and general manager have all quit. This is all from the owners of the gym. Many of us are leaving the gym due to the owners. Please tell your friends not to join this place."

In response to Nix's post, several members quit and emailed Lowe to express their concerns over the event cancelation.

Brandon Lowe issued a statement to CNBC, saying, "The unfortunate line that is being read about the gym grossly misrepresents what CrossFit Infiltrate stands for and what it believes. The majority of the reviews and statements being read about the gym largely point out that Infiltrate's community has been incredible and welcoming and that the decision not to host an Indy Pride event is the reason we are called bigots or discriminative. However, let the history of the gym speak for itself and for the position we take in this divisive atmosphere, CrossFit Infiltrate welcomes, serves, and prioritizes training people to be fit and functional in body, mind, and spirit. It never has and never will be anything but welcoming to all human beings who live, move, and breathe in God's world."

The gym's social media was receiving hateful posts and comments, and by Tuesday evening members received an email from gym manager Martin saying that Lowe declared the gym was officially closing, a decision made by executives.

"One of the things I love about CrossFit is the inclusive community," said Becca Kimball, who had been a member at CrossFit Infiltrate for years. "It was clear from this action that the goals and beliefs of the director of the gym did not align with those of the members, coaches or manager Johnnie."

Kimball quit right after receiving the email from Martin about the Pride event's cancellation, because she was not comfortable associating with a discriminatory organization.

CrossFit employee fired after saying 'celebrating Pride is a sin'

On Wednesday the scandal reached the level of CrossFit corporate when an employee of the company, Russell Berger, who claims in his Twitter profile to be the CrossFit "chief knowledge officer," tweeted his support of CrossFit Infiltrate's stance, saying that he "personally believes celebrating 'pride' is a sin."

He also tweeted that the "tactics of some in the LGBTQ movement toward dissent is an existential threat to freedom of expression."

The tweets have since been removed.

Berger was initially suspended by CrossFit on Wednesday, but by the end of the day, the company announced he had been fired. The company posted a statement to Twitter saying, "The statements made today by Russell Berger do not reflect the views of CrossFit Inc. For this reason, his employment with CrossFit has been terminated."

"I'm a single-issue guy, and that's fitness." -Greg Glassman, CrossFit founder and CEO in 2016 interview with CNBC

CrossFit's 13,000-plus locations are roughly equal to the number of Starbucks locations in the United States. The negative headlines are at odds with Glassman's past efforts to keep the company centered on its mission. Responding to questions about its cultlike status in an interview with CNBC in 2016, Glassman laughed and said, "I'm a single-issue guy, and that's fitness."

Glassman issued a statement to BuzzFeed on Wednesday saying he did not stand by Berger's views, which he called "appalling."

"He needs to take a big dose of 'shut the f--- up' and hide out for a while. It's sad," Glassman told BuzzFeed. "We do so much good work with such pure hearts — to have some zealot in his off-time do something this stupid, we're all upset. The whole company is upset. This changes his standing with us. What that looks like, I don't know. It's so unfortunate."

CrossFit's official Twitter account also quoted Glassman as saying, "I am crazy proud of the gay community in CrossFit."

According to the BuzzFeed report, Berger is a CrossFit trainer who opened up an early CrossFit affiliate, and told the publication he holds orthodox Christian beliefs and is a pastor at a church in Huntsville, Alabama. Berger, who has blogged often in defense of Crossfit, told BuzzFeed that in this case his personal views and views of the company became wrongly associated.

Community members have organized a Pride workout event unassociated with the gym in response to the week's events. And Kimball hopes the larger organization and management will learn a lesson from this experience.

"Everyone in the Crossfit community knows what it means to show up, put in the work and sweat together," Kimball said. "I hope this can inspire others to stand up for what they believe in, because there is no place for hate in this community."

Other CrossFit gym owners from around the country turned to social media to show their support for LGBTQ members.

CrossFit has a longstanding and high-profile partnership with Reebok.

Indiana was the setting for one of the most high-profile recent battles between evangelical beliefs and corporate America when then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2015, leading major employers, including Salesforce.com, to threaten to pull all employees out of the state. The Indiana RFRA law battle became major national news, and Pence then signed a revised version of the law, which appeased corporations.

By Brandon Gomez, CNBC news associate

This story has been updated to reflect that Russell Berger was a CrossFit employee who claims in his Twitter profile to be the CrossFit "chief knowledge officer."