CrossFit Owner Fostered Sexist Company Culture, Workers Say

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When Greg Glassman resigned earlier this month as chief executive of CrossFit, Inc., excoriated for comments about George Floyd’s death on Twitter and in a Zoom meeting, people who have worked there were surprised that his downfall was tied to accusations of racism.

They had assumed that the reason would be routine and rampant sexual harassment.

Interviews with eight former employees, and four CrossFit athletes with strong ties to the company, reveal a management culture rife with covert and vulgar talk about women: their bodies, how much male employees, primarily Mr. Glassman, would like to have sex with them and how lucky the women should feel to have his rabid interest.

According to the dozen interviewed, Mr. Glassman, 63, has verbally demeaned women, pulled at their clothes to try to peek at their cleavage and aimed his phone’s camera to snap photos of their breasts while they traveled with him for work (sometimes pressuring them to consider sharing hotel rooms or borrowed houses with him).

Through a company spokesman and spokeswoman, Mr. Glassman denied such conduct. The spokeswoman said Mr. Glassman has treated her only respectfully. She suggested that people speaking out against Mr. Glassman are doing so to lessen the worth of his company and then buy it from him. “There is a collective effort to devalue the company and buy it for scraps,” she said.

The former employees say reporting the harassment was not an option. Mr. Glassman is the sole owner of CrossFit, Inc. Perhaps the most powerful female executive there, Kathy Glassman, the affiliate director, is Mr. Glassman’s sister, and they were reluctant to complain to her. There was no human resources manager until 2013. That manager left the company in January and has not been replaced.

A Devoted Community

Now headquartered in Scotts Valley, Calif., CrossFit was created in 2000. It is privately held and currently employs 72 people full-time, down from 137 two years ago. A shift in the company’s focus from competitive games to health initiatives, and the pandemic, have resulted in layoffs. Most departing workers receive severance only if they signed nondisclosure agreements.

Dave Castro, a longtime deputy of Mr. Glassman’s who has taken over as the company’s chief executive, declined to speak for this article.

The spokespeople noted that the CrossFit Games, a professional competition introduced by the company in 2007, rewards men and women with equal prize money, and that the method encourages women to celebrate strength and fitness regardless of body type or weight.

Even those critical of CrossFit’s culture praised its rigorous exercise method, which is taught in thousands of mom-and-pop gyms around the country that have licensed the CrossFit trademark. For some of its devotees, CrossFit is a near-religion.

“There is so much positive in the CrossFit community,” said one female former employee who, like many others interviewed for this article, was granted anonymity because she fears legal retribution from Mr. Glassman. “Do you want to be the person who ruins people’s hopes and dreams and even their businesses? CrossFit is not just about fitness. It becomes your friends, your family, your community. People create their entire lives around it.”

Away from the local gyms where he is venerated, though, the picture of Mr. Glassman clouds quickly. “There was a constant narrative about women,” the former corporate employee said. She described his using vulgarities frequently to refer to women, enumerating which he wanted to have sex with and which he wouldn’t. He “was always descriptive in nature about it,” she said, “bragging about sexual escapades.”

This attitude was so entwined with operations that the Wi-Fi password at a company office in San Diego used to be a sexist obscenity, according to three former employees.

Male employees would rank female professional CrossFit athletes according to how much the men wanted to have sex with them, according to an email from a current CrossFit employee to a former one that was reviewed by The New York Times. (Mr. Glassman denies this, his spokeswoman said.)

One former male employee, who requested anonymity because he didn’t have permission from his current employer to speak to the media, defended Mr. Glassman. “I’m not into painting someone into an evil person just because he might have been misogynistic,” he said.

In 2012, Mr. Glassman agreed to pay a financial settlement to Julie Kelly, a former employee whose lawyers threatened to file a sexual harassment lawsuit, according to three people in the CrossFit community with direct knowledge of the situation. Among other incidents, they related, during a company get-together at a bar, Mr. Glassman stood next to Ms. Kelly and made a vulgar and obscene comment about her to another man, (Mr. Glassman denies this, the spokeswoman said, and would not comment on the settlement.)

Also that year, Mr. Glassman was being driven to the airport by Andy Stumpf, a former Navy Seal with five Bronze Star medals and a Purple Heart who oversaw CrossFit, Inc.’s partnership with Reebok and also worked as Mr. Glassman’s pilot.

“We were in the car and he was chuckling,” said Mr. Stumpf, in an interview. “I asked why he was in such a good mood and he said, ‘I finally finished up with the bullshit with Julie; I had to pay that whore.’”

Ms. Kelly declined an interview request.

‘A Very Elegant Solution’

In an interview, Lauren Jenai, Mr. Glassman’s ex-wife who founded CrossFit with him, said that the employees and athletes were accurately describing the corporate atmosphere she witnessed before divorcing Mr. Glassman in 2013. She also confirmed that Mr. Glassman entered into a financial settlement with Ms. Kelly to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit. (Ms. Jenai received $20 million from Mr. Glassman as part of their divorce settlement, in exchange for her ownership of the company.)

“He’s the father of my kids. I care about Greg and about CrossFit,” Ms. Jenai said, “but this should be addressed.”

Of the constant sexualized assessment of women, she said, “100 percent. That happens every day, all day.”

Ms. Jenai said the vulgar Wi-Fi password was also used in the home she shared with Mr. Glassman, and was in keeping with the office patois. “They are nasty about women and they talk freely in front of them and it does make my skin crawl,” she said, but not always. “I think it does need to be said that both Greg and I, and our friends, have raw senses of humor. There is a lot of that banter that I don’t find offensive but the difference was, I was in a position of leadership so my job didn’t depend on how I responded to those remarks.”

Ms. Jenai said people were punished for challenging the culture. “If you didn’t agree with Greg, you would be ostracized, especially if you were a female,” she said. “For me, the bigger problem than the language is the culture behind it. If you speak out, you’re out. I’ve seen it firsthand, over and over and over.”

The CrossFit spokeswoman said that Ms. Jenai was motivated to lessen the company’s value so she could buy it. The spokesman forwarded an email sent by Ms. Jenai to Matt Holdsworth, CrossFit, Inc.’s chief financial officer, on June 15, less than a week after Mr. Glassman had resigned.

“My interest and intentions are solely based on wanting to help with current issues CrossFit is facing. I do not want to see the company or brand suffer,” Ms. Jenai wrote. “I’m looking at $50M as an offer — or thereabouts. Is this something CrossFit Inc would consider?”

On Saturday morning, Ms. Jenai confirmed this. “I was approached by an investment company who wants to back me in buying CrossFit,” she said. “In people’s minds, including mine, it would be a very elegant solution. I don’t want to see this thing go down the drain. I’ve talked to reporters because if I say nothing I’m complicit. If I talk to people and don’t tell the truth, I’m a liar.”

‘A Metric Ton of Inappropriate Behavior’

CrossFit’s first workouts were held in a garage in Santa Cruz, Calif. The county sheriff’s department was among Mr. Glassman’s earliest clients. The method has been popular among the police and the military, including those assigned to elite teams like Green Berets and Navy Seals, enhancing the fitness program’s credibility.

At the beginning of 2020, there were more than 14,000 affiliate gyms, according to Justin LoFranco, founder of Morning Chalk Up, a newsletter that covers the CrossFit community. Affiliated gyms pay CrossFit, Inc. an annual fee of $3,000 or less.

The company also draws revenue from CrossFit Games and sponsorships, like one from Reebok, which was valued at about $100 million over the last 10 years.

By the time the deal with Reebok was struck in 2010, CrossFit, Inc. already had a reputation.

Lindsey Johnson, a CrossFit athlete hired by Reebok to train its executives, turned down an opportunity to do additional work for CrossFit, Inc.

“I had heard too many stories about too many things I didn’t want to be a part of,” Ms. Johnson said, including “straight-up bullying and sexual harassment of women. We’ve heard this story before, this isn’t a brand-new situation, someone at the top with a God complex.”

After Mr. Glassman’s inflammatory tweet and comments about Mr. Floyd, Reebok announced that it would not renew the CrossFit deal. Morning Chalk Up reported that more than 1,200 affiliates had plans to disassociate themselves from the CrossFit brand. (“Greg thought Reebok was a terrible partner. He has been dying to get out of” the contract, the spokeswoman said. The spokesman added that only 450 affiliates have officially deactivated, some because of the pandemic.)

Last week, scrutiny of the company intensified after Mr. Stumpf, a speaker on leadership, devoted an entire episode of his podcast, “Cleared Hot,” to what he saw while working for CrossFit, Inc. from 2010 to 2014.

“I cannot count the number of times that derogatory and specifically sexual comments were made about female staff members directly in my presence,” Mr. Stumpf said, urging Mr. Glassman and the company to release former employees from nondisclosure agreements.

The CrossFit spokeswoman said that Mr. Glassman believes that Mr. Stumpf is working with his ex-wife to try to buy the company. (“I want nothing to do with CrossFit for the rest of my life,” Mr. Stumpf said, “and no amount of money and no position offered to me would change my position.”)

The former employees interviewed by The Times said much of the mistreatment happened openly, which made them question their own reactions and wonder if they were being too sensitive. Some worried that speaking out would cost them their jobs.

“There was a metric ton of inappropriate behavior but even worse, there was a systematic problem of undermining women,” one former employee said. “The systematic way they chip away at your self-confidence, I had never experienced anything like that.”

CrossFit, Inc. also sometimes flaunted a raunchy attitude toward women in its own promotion.

In a podcast interview for the CrossFit Journal conducted in January 2018, Sevan Matossian, a longtime deputy of Mr. Glassman’s, interviewed Stacie Tovar, an affiliate owner in Omaha, Neb., and a popular, retired professional CrossFit athlete.

Mr. Matossian asked her if she was sexually active with her husband and if she took birth control pills. He told her he preferred a bathing suit photo of her on her website to one showing her in athletic competition. “Your body is freakishly amazing,” he said. Lamenting changes brought about by the MeToo movement, he said, “You can’t even ask your significant other for” oral sex anymore.

“A fitness industry is different from an accounting firm,” the CrossFit spokeswoman said, regarding the podcast.

That summer, the company hosted a CrossFit Health Conference in Madison, Wis. A blown-up poster on social media and near the entrance of the conference featured an illustration of a doctor with money coming out of his white doctor’s coat, surrounded by scantily dressed, buxom women, including one with dollar bills coming out of her short-shorts as she grasps the doctor’s crotch.

Ms. Jenai, who now runs Manifest, which provides testing kits and personal coaching to help people deal with chronic health issues, said that Mr. Glassman’s putting Mr. Castro in charge will not solve CrossFit, Inc.’s problems, since Mr. Glassman retains ownership.

“He is a yes man,” she said of Mr. Castro. “I believe Dave being put in this position, there is no change. It is the status quo.”

The CrossFit spokesman said it was untrue that Mr. Glassman would still be calling the shots. “He wants to retire and home-school his kids,” he said.