CrossFit founder Greg Glassman announced on Tuesday that he is stepping down from his role as CEO and going into retirement, to be replaced by Dave Castro, director of the CrossFit Games. The move mostly results from a single tweet by Glassman, making light of the death of George Floyd, which has inspired nationwide protests. It's a sobering lesson for all leaders on the power of social media to damage your brand as well as strengthen it.
Glassman, long known for saying exactly what he thinks (often with profanity), resisted requests from CrossFit gym owners to make an anti-racism statement in response to Floyd's killing. On a group video call Saturday, he told a Minneapolis gym owner that he was not mourning Floyd's death and thought most his employees weren't either.
That was bad enough, but a few hours later he responded to a tweet from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation that read "Racism is a public health issue" with a tweet of his own, "It's FLOYD-19." It was a horrifically insensitive comment made worse by the fact that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting the black community for reasons that have everything to do with inequality.
Over the next few days, at least 1,200 CrossFit gym owners -- and Reebok -- announced they were ending their affiliation with CrossFit. Glassman tweeted an apology on Sunday, saying his comment was "not racist, but a mistake." But the damage could not be undone.
In his statement announcing his retirement, Glassman wrote, "On Saturday I created a rift in the CrossFit community and unintentionally hurt many of its members." He went on to reiterate CrossFit's mission, which is to fight the epidemic of chronic illness such as heart disease and diabetes through improved nutrition and fitness, adding, "I cannot let my behavior stand in the way of [CrossFit's] or affiliates' missions."
Why didn't CrossFit just say something?
Castro, for his part, followed up with statement of his own, saying the CrossFit community is hurt and calling for "common ground, mutual respect, and fellowship." The company also published a statement titled "Why Didn't CrossFit Just Say Something?" apologizing for its failure to make a statement sooner in support of the black community, and for Glassman's comments. "Please accept our deepest apology for contributing to the pain and confusion permeating our community," it says.
Meanwhile, CrossFit gyms around the country are continuing to disaffiliate from the brand. Even with Glassman gone, the company's future may be in peril.
Glassman's insensitive statements to gym owners during his video calls with them would have caused trouble for CrossFit no matter what. But he wouldn't have lost so many gyms -- or his job as CEO -- without that single tweet.
Glassman's shoot-from-the-hip style has always been part of CrossFit's culture and appeal. It's the kind of style that can play well on social media, as it has for Elon Musk and Donald Trump, among others. That sort of authentic social media has vaulted many small and startup companies to incredible success. But it's an approach that must be tempered with sensitivity, empathy, and common sense, especially at a time when so many in our society are grieving and justifiably angry.
Glassman is great at being authentic, but failed at sensitivity and empathy. That failure is why a two-word tweet ended his career and put his beloved brand in jeopardy.