Crossfit and the Military: A Way Forward

As a long-time member of Crossfit South Brooklyn, I have blogged here on Crossfit-related issues before (posts on Crossfit and the military, Crossfit and women, and of course, some training notes on weightlifting.) I’m not done yet writing about Crossfit, especially when it comes to issues of inclusiveness. On that note, I’m glad to welcome a guest post by Noah Barth, also a fellow Crossfitter, who has written a thoughtful post on the vexed relationship between Crossfit and military culture, a topic which I discussed–a while ago–in one of my most-read and discussed posts.

Noah offers a critique of Crossfit-military ties and goes on to suggest a possibly new orientation and focus for the community at large. It is his hope that by writing this post, he can spark a broader discussion about Crossfit–its past, present,and future.

Without further ado, here is Noah:

Like all successful companies in the modern age Crossfit does not sell a product but a brand.  I was initially attracted by the branding aspect of uniquely high levels of athleticism and became a dedicated member of Crossfit South Brooklyn for 19 months.  One piece of the brand identity that never sat well with me was Crossfit’s identification with the military.  The central website regularly features photos of military personnel; in discussing “types” of Crossfitters “tactical athlete”—denoting military or police personnel—is commonly listed alongside “sports athletes,” “casual athletes” and so on; uniformed service personnel—including police and fire—receive discounted memberships; and the hardest workouts are “Hero WODs” named for deceased military personnel who were Crossfitters

 The prominence of military reference in the Crossfit identity always seemed a bit odd to me.  Understand this- the gym I worked out at is located in Park Slope, a highly liberal, fairly affluent part of New York City.  While the gym has plenty of prototypical athletic types it also has many members that do not fit a generic “athlete” mold and I would estimate that half of the membership is female.  We have movie night and play The Big Lebowski, there is a book club and a movie club- this is not an uber-macho environment by any stretch of the imagination.  I didn’t feel especially imposed on regarding the military and figured I should be flexible as not all elements need to cater directly to me.  I was getting results from the program, I enjoyed the company of my fellow athletes and the culture was generally agreeable.

This past Memorial Day my opinion changed.  As is done at many Crossfit gyms we celebrated Memorial Day by doing a Hero WOD called “Murph” followed by a barbeque.  Murph is a pressure test: a one-mile run followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats, topped off with another mile run.  To those who are really game the instructions say “if you have body armor or a weight vest, wear it.”  I did Murph on Memorial Day last year and it took me about 50 minutes which I was told was a great time for a newbie.

This year although I sat it out due to injury I came to the gym to cheer on friends, eat and socialize.  The tenor of the event however was different.  When I arrived at the gym I found it decked out with flags from each branch on the military and seemingly everyone wearing t-shirts made for the day: a Marine Corps emblem inspired graphic on a military green background that said “Crossfit South Brooklyn Supports the Troops.”

I understand that Memorial Day is a national holiday meant recognize those who lost their lives in military service. It ensures that we collectively as a society honor and remember their lives and deaths.  I respect that notion but am bothered when it is couched in the language of “sacrifice” and/or “service to America” or “us.”  Personally I do not feel that the vast majority of these women and men died to make me safer, to defend America or to protect my freedom.  I and many people like me feel that hundreds and thousands of service people unnecessarily die every year to further a political agenda which we fervently disagree with.

I have spoken to many gym members since Memorial Day who have some military connection; their responses on Murph invariably center on the ability to separate honoring a soldier(s) and supporting the institution of the US military.  I too have family and classmates that have fought in war but “putting politics aside and honoring the troops” simply doesn’t work for me. It feels like a dishonor to those women and men’s memories by masking the ill-intentions of our military complex behind something sacrosanct like a soldier’s death.  Many people partake of the Memorial Day event for the workout and community interaction. Previously that separation was easily negotiated as the military aspect was not terribly overt.  This year’s presentation of military insignia and nationalistic statement however made me feel guilty to even be present. I try to be open-minded so I stayed at the event; to spend time with my fellow athletes but also to mull these thoughts over and observe how they progressed.  In speaking with friends that day it was clear that I was not the only one uncomfortable with the pageantry.

On a basic level I felt a social pressure to accept a set of values on a very touchy issue: the military.  By the manner of presentation it felt assumed that all present should accept a certain interest or allegiance to a viewpoint.  I felt that it was an inherently non-inclusive space within what is usually an extremely inclusive environment.  Crossfit is often accused of being a cult, a claim which I think this is hyperbole- I firmly believe that Crossfit like so much else is what you make of it.  That being said there are many people who are new to the gym and/or New York and are eager to find social acceptance; this can come with a level of conformity to community norms that can be inadvertently dictatorial.  With them in mind, I want to voice a view on Memorial Day that is alternate than the one presented.  I want such people to understand that working out at Crossfit South Brooklyn shouldn’t have to mean that you have to support a specific value chain.  I would posit that if the central idea of Memorial Day is remembrance of life lost than it should be a somber occasion where we meditate on the devastating costs to life and society that we pay by conducting world affairs this way.

If the idea is to “support the troops” than I and those of similar disposition would state that a more effective method is to actively defend those troops’ lives by fighting to keep them out of unnecessary wars in the first place.

This brings me back to my original question: why the military referencing?  Most answers begin with Crossfit’s early adaptation by military personnel.  That sounds like pandering: one group supports your product so you tailor it to reinforce their culture.  If true I reject being a part of that.  This however is explained away in a nonchalant, “oh, well that was back when…” kind of way.  If so, than why does the ideological bent continue?  Crossfit is a global brand with Reebok and ESPN endorsement; there are scores of Crossfit apparel and athletic supply lines.  There is no need to appease one segment of your membership base at the expense of alienating others.

The next explanation centers on Crossfit honoring the service provided by military personnel explained in a non-political tone.  Honoring and offering financial incentive to one group and not others is an inherently political statement.  Furthermore, if you want to honor their work in a general way and not support violence or war per se than why not celebrate and reward others that similarly work for the avowed benefit of society?  Crossfit South Brooklyn instituted a discount for teachers to address this exact point, but why stop there?  Why not a discount for all municipal employees?  How about non-profit employees?  If you want to say that the discount for uniformed service members is not a glorification of the military but has to do with recognition of efforts to make our society a better, safer place than why not extend the same courtesy and respect to those who accept a life of underpayment in the struggle to create a better world?  Why not support those who engage a professional life guided by the pursuit of societal betterment rather than financial profit?  Then we can begin a real discussion about community and non-aggressive sport; otherwise the discount appears to me to be a pandering scheme based on military fetishism.

Crossfit has evolved since its early days of the “Pukey the Clown” and “Uncle Rhabdo” mascots.  I believe that Crossfit as a brand has reached a major crossroads in its proliferation and it needs to decide how to further adjust its brand identity to accommodate this.  Gyms such as Crossfit South Brooklyn have taken some progressive steps to confront its mainstream presence such as the teacher discount and hosting of LGBT workout events.  Still, Crossfit’s stance and vocabulary on certain topics remain at odds with its purported emphasis on community and inclusiveness.  Gyms such as Crossfit South Brooklyn by virtue of their location, size and reputation have the unique opportunity to be at the vanguard of the brand’s next evolution to a more inclusive, dynamic identity.

Here is final suggestion for the greater Crossfit community: pretty soon our country will celebrate another major holiday, Labor Day.  Why not develop an event similar to the Murph Memorial Day celebration but theme it around the efforts of the millions of blue collar workers that form the ideological backbone of this country?  Why not physically endure in recognition of those whose very existence is under assault by economic depression, a shift to a tech-based economy, outsourcing and labor exploitation.  Celebrate them, ask your community to push itself to its physical limits in their honor and you’ll see me there, draped in an American flag with bloody calluses.

4 thoughts on “Crossfit and the Military: A Way Forward

  1. Noah,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Memorial Day Murph and your perspectives on the relationship between CrossFit and the armed forces. A couple things I wanted to chime in on:

    1. Memorial Day Murph
    CFSBK hosts an annual “Memorial Day Murph” event to recognize both those who have fallen in war as well as recognizing our current members who are serving or have served in the armed forces (Sort of like Memorial Day and Veteran’s day wrapped in one). It’s really the only day out of the entire year where the gym directly addresses the military and from my perspective the tone is generally pretty neutral. I took some offense to your statement:

    “By the manner of presentation it felt assumed that all present should accept a certain interest or allegiance to a viewpoint.”

    That was entirely your perspective. The flags were gifted to us by members in each branch of the armed services and we figured this was the one day of the year to display them. As the person running the event and myself having no ties to the military nor someone even particularly interested in nationalism I can assure you there was no intention to justify any specific politics related to war. More simply, we’re recognizing another community who is part of our own and paying homage to the unfortunate reality that is death through war.

    In my opinion it’s the least we could do, and really what else would you expect at an event held on Memorial Day while doing a workout dedicated to a deceased solider? It’s like showing up to a Christmas party and being offended they had a tree up. I understand that many if not most who attend don’t have strong connections to the military and are doing it simply to do a hard workout then eat BBQ and drink beers with friends on their day off. That’s fine, but not addressing the nature of the event and holiday in some way seems like it would be terribly offensive to the Murphy family and those who have been tragically affected by war. Especially those present.

    2. Discounts
    We don’t offer discounts in order to honor their work nor is it a political statement. The reason that that armed forces as well as EMTs, Police Officers and fire fighters receive a discount has always been because their job inherently requires a high level of fitness to perform effectively and safely. Offering students and full time teachers discounts on the other hand is a transparently political statement.

    On a related note, “Hero WODs” also include Coast Guard, Fire Fighters and Police Officers who have fallen in their respective occupations.

    3. Inclusiveness
    “Crossfit’s stance and vocabulary on certain topics remain at odds with its purported emphasis on community and inclusiveness.” Can you be specific about which stances and vocabulary you’re referencing? I’m confused about how CrossFit can become more inclusive by phasing out military relationships based on your particular political leanings. It’s my belief, that inclusiveness is actually allowing even opposing philosophies to co-exist within the brand and community. CrossFit will never look and reflect all of my political and social leanings, nor would I want it to.

    The Labor day event is a good idea, but I’d probably not make it a nationalistic event as unfortunately many around the world are forced to suffer back breaking labor so we can enjoy first world luxuries. I’d prefer a generally humanistic tone.

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