Community Protection and the Firing of Russell Berger

by Hayden-William Courtland, Ph.D., New York, NY, @scienceforfitness, CCFT/CF-L3, and CrossFitter since 2009.

On June 6th, 2018 Russell Berger, Chief Knowledge Officer of CrossFit, Inc. posted on his personal Twitter account congratulatory remarks to the owners of CrossFit Infiltrate for canceling an Indy Pride [LQBTQ+] workout organized by their coaches and members. The cancellation was based on the owners’ religious beliefs toward homosexuality. In his original tweet Berger stated the owners’ action was praise-worthy as he too felt celebrating “pride” was a sin.

What followed was outrage from many people with ties to the CrossFit community. In a matter of hours Berger was put on unpaid leave while CrossFit, Inc. investigated, and by the end of the day his employment was terminated. The vast majority of people I know felt this was the right course of action for CrossFit, Inc. However, some social media posts and commentaries did not agree with this action. Individuals with these viewpoints generally had one of three rebuttals to Berger’s swift termination and I have given my perspective on each of them below.

1. CrossFit, Inc. should stay out of politics and just focus on fitness.

Given that CrossFit was built around a sense of community, how could we possibly expect them to turn a blind eye...

Those who ask for this approach fail to realize that when Greg Glassman founded CrossFit, it was as much about fitness as it was about community. Over the years this has changed, but only insofar as CrossFit is now even more about fitness and community. For example, on numerous occasions, when the livelihood of an affiliate was threatened (false publicity, natural disaster, etc.), CrossFit, Inc. stepped in to help. Similarly, CrossFit has extended into politics because politics impact public understanding of health science. As an example, Glassman appeared before the RI state senate to discuss the soda industry’s “undue influence on health science.” Some people may not like this, but nothing exists in a vacuum; everything is connected.  Given that CrossFit was built around a sense of community, how could we possibly expect them to turn a blind eye on community advocacy and politics?

2. Early termination leaves no room to educate or build a bridge.

As someone who spent the majority of my life performing research and teaching in academia, I can attest that education is a great and wonderful process. When given the opportunity, I try to educate those who are confused or misinformed. But in order to educate, the educator and individual being educated must be on common ground. They must be using a similar framework with similar tools, a similar system of analysis if you will. For someone like me, the system of analysis would be using components of the scientific method (logic, data collection, reproducibility, etc.). As an example, the fact that homosexuality is common among many non-human animal species across our recorded scientific history, leads me to conclude homosexuality is a natural part of life. It is from these observations (which are separate from personal opinion), that I build my belief system to include the notion that there are no amoral underpinnings to homosexuality. For someone like Berger, the framework is not built around independent empirical evidence, but a series of human records (the Bible) written by numerous individuals well before the dawn of the modern scientific method.

If people’s beliefs are constructed through different systems of thought, attempts to educate will fail.

Obviously, I feel my approach better reveals the truth, but to play devil’s advocate (as a true scientist would), let’s say my approach is wrong. Either way, the bridge breaks down. If people’s beliefs are constructed through different systems of thought, attempts to educate will fail. Facebook comment threads are filled with flame wars from these kinds of impasses and I argue that far too much divisiveness and anger is created when people with different frameworks of thought try to “educate” each other.

In my mind, the abovementioned points present reason enough to forgo the education of someone with a different framework of thought, but another reason is to send a clear message that the greater organization does not espouse or condone a given mentality, and that the speaker in question was not speaking on behalf of the organization’s values. Why is this important? Well, if you spend time trying to educate, what message does that send? As noted above, the CEO of a company is highly unlikely to talk the person out of their beliefs and in the meantime all LGBTQ members of the CrossFit community are left to wonder “was retaining this person, who’s unlikely to be swayed, more important than letting hundreds of thousands of members know that their humanity is valued, celebrated, and embraced and that the CrossFit philosophy of support and community is fully extended and inclusive of them?” I would argue that CrossFit, Inc. felt the risk was not worth it and therefore acted the way they did and as quickly as they did.

So, for one-on-one education, when there is common ground, we should all be 100% there for it, but when the common ground is not there or when someone is a leader of an organization with a bully pulpit (a highly visible messenger), education is not an effective or appropriate response. Indeed, when the stakes involve human dignity and the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the risks are often far too high.

3. This is America and people shouldn’t lose their jobs because of their personal beliefs – if they do, then they are the real victims and nobody truly wins.

The reality is, you can lose your job. The first amendment protects us from the government infringing upon our right to express ourselves. This does not mean we are free from consequences when serving as a spokesperson of our employer or making statements of opinions that run counter to those of our employer. By doing do, you have failed to do your job and the employer may act accordingly. You can still share those opinions, but no one is obliged keep you on payroll when you’ve gone “off-brand.”

The stakes are incredibly high here if you view this type of action as an attack on human rights. I believe this is why CrossFit, Inc. acted as swiftly and decisively as they did – to affirm the humanity of their LGBTQ+ community.

The legality of free speech aside, let’s consider why terminating someone’s employment in this situation might be an appropriate course of action. To do this, you really have to take a step outside your own life. Perhaps the LGBTQ+ members of CrossFit Infiltrate found a family in CrossFit. Perhaps they found acceptance of who they truly are. Perhaps this environment was enabling them to come out of the closet and escape the clutches of suicidal depression. And then a high-level CrossFit representative encourages shutting down a pride event because it is amoral. Consider the potential emotional distress such an action could cause those LGBTQ+ members, as their human dignity and right to exist are ripped apart. These are the real victims. The stakes are incredibly high here if you view this type of action as an attack on human rights (as myself and many others do). I believe this is why CrossFit, Inc. acted as swiftly and decisively as they did – to affirm the humanity of their LGBTQ+ community.

Conclusions

Each of us has to decide what role we want and need to play in the fight for human rights. The more reach we have, the greater power we have to affect change, but also the more responsibility we have towards making the arc of history bend towards social justice and equity for all. Therefore, how a large corporation like CrossFit, Inc. acts will be different from how an individual acts within the scope of their influence. This is a good thing and this many-sided approach is how we will one day win.

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Written with contributions from:  Kevin Croke

The views expressed in this opinion piece are solely those of the author and do not represent those of CrossFit, Inc., OUTWOD or The OUT Foundation.

Will Lanier