The CrossFit Games Open Is Broken, Part 2: Inbreeding and the “Appearance of Impropriety”

CrossFit has exploded into a high-profile sport. That means they need to go full pro and lose the inbreeding. What do I mean by that? Read on.

In September 2012, the NFL yanked replacement referee Brian Stropolo from the available pool of referees because he had posted pictures of himself on Facebook in a New Orleans Saints t-shirt. The league pulled him because of the ethical standards to which all refs, both regular and replacement, are held, and to avoid even the “appearance of impropriety”. I suspect similar standards apply to umpires and officials in all major sports.

The “appearance of impropriety” is the cornerstone of this week’s look at the CrossFit Games Open. Perception is everything. Everyone wants to believe they have and deserve a level playing field.


I would make the case that CrossFit, having become a multi-million dollar, sponsored, televised, international sport, needs come to terms with this fact. And as such, they need to go full-pro.

What does that mean? First, it means that they need to draw a clear distinction between who works for CrossFit and who does not. If you do work for CrossFit, then you should not be eligible to compete. If someone goes from “Flowmaster” (the group of L1 Cert instructors employed by CrossFit), to coach at a local box, to high-profile CrossFit Media personality, to competitor, there is a high risk of a perception of impropriety. Second, it should mean that anyone within the organization should be neutral at all times. See Brian Stropolo.

After all, if you work for CrossFit, do you know the Open workouts before the general public?  Do you get a hand in planning those workouts? That may sound ludicrous, but how does the general public know? If a person who works for CrossFit qualifies for Regionals and is on the “inside” on a fairly regular basis, is it possible that they get a top tier judge? Maybe another judge who is a fellow “Flowmaster?” Is it possible, as far-fetched as it may seem, that workouts are even constructed with certain athletes in mind? And finally, if you are another competitor who happens to be one or two spots away from qualifying and are standing at the fence watching your regional competition, wouldn’t you wonder: “Wait a sec…doesn’t that person work for CrossFit?”

Perception. Stropolo. There’s a reason NFL refs can’t favor a specific team.

As petty as this may sound, it’s a potentially serious problem. There is a lot of money on the line now in the CrossFit Games, and part of leveling the playing field for every competitor is eliminating any perception of favoritism. To that end, one of two things needs to happen. Either none of the Flowmasters/Media/L1 Certification staff can compete any longer – and this would impact a huge portion of the field – or those individuals must immediately resign their professional association with CrossFit, Inc. No more L1 certs, no more media gigs, no more announcing. You either work for CrossFit, or you compete.

As for remaining neutral, in 2012 Chris Spealler staged a phenomenal comeback at Regionals to qualify for his sixth consecutive CrossFit Games. As he worked his way up the leaderboard, there were a number of prominent HQ employees and spokespersons tweeting – “C’mon SPEAL!” and other such supportive tweets. How do you think this looks to the person who is sitting in third place at Regionals, when CrossFit HQ is rooting for the guy in fourth place to knock them off the podium? And how does it look to his fans, family, and box? Like the Brian Stropolo example, it’s time to go full pro and put the fandom away.

Friends Judging Friends

Let’s say Jane owns CrossFit Yellow Hills. Jane has a good shot at getting her team to Regionals. One of Jane’s star athletes, Lauren, asks Jane to meet her at 6:00am, before she goes to work, to judge her 14.1 performance. There is no one else in the gym at 6:00am other than Jane, who really wants her team to go to Regionals, and Lauren, whose score will go a long way to helping that team make it.

See the conflict? Jane can’t be impartial, for three reasons. First, because she is the affiliate owner, and she will validate the score. There is no third-party, objective observer. Second, she has a huge vested interest in making sure Lauren has a great performance. Third, she can’t be impartial because she and Lauren are best friends. The “appearance of impropriety” is running high here. In fact, this takes place at almost every CrossFit box in the world. The people who are judging their friends and teammates have a vested interest in those athletes doing well.

It’s hard enough to no rep someone you just met at a local throwdown, Regionals, even at the Games. You like that person and are pulling for them. Add to that the personal relationship, coupled with the desire for that person to do well, and you have a recipe for a very polluted pool of scores. There is a major conflict of interest going on.

This doesn’t even touch on the degree of actual bad judging that goes on. Let’s face it – we can all no rep the obvious, like the wall ball that never even hits the wall or the failed snatch. But what about the thruster that’s only 99% locked out, or the squat that’s a fraction of an inch above parallel? Or how about the hips that aren’t fully open on box jumps or deadlifts? Is it realistic to say that everyone in the entire world who is handed a clipboard on game day at their box is hitting these “no reps” with a solid 100% degree of accuracy? No way.

The fact is, bad reps are rampant. Josh Golden was disqualified, but was not no-repped by the judge when doing his workout live, and even Jason Khalipa had to go on Facebook and defend his toes-to-bar because of a significant outcry of failing to open his hips.

We’ve all seen it at our local boxes. If you are one of the “everyone at my box judges harshly and fairly” types, then I have news for you: You are getting beaten by other boxes in your region who let hundreds of shit reps by. You should be demanding change the loudest.

What can be done?

A lot. For one, look at the actual CrossFit Games. Many of the workouts included modalities that required an object to be moved from here to there, such as sled drags, pulls, the “worm,” and running. As unpopular as it may sound, if you want to make sure there are uniformly applied judging standards, stop including so many movements that are so subjective. Deadlifts? C’mon. We all know based on the 13.2 live event that even if you say shoulders must be behind the bar and hips must be fully open, a judge is willing to leave a lot of room for interpretation.

How about stones-over-shoulders? Sled work? Moving objects? Even burpees over a bar are more effective than plain old burpees because you have to get somewhere. Maybe hand-release-burpee-muscle-ups? Then the only judgeable portion is full lock out at the top. There are lots of creative ways to skin the cat (hey – skin the cats, maybe?) but for God’s sake, stop with the box jumps.

Perhaps the Open needs to become a pseudo-sectional, where boxes are required to come together in groups of at least three and no one from your own box is permitted to judge you. Moreover, make it a minimum requirement that anyone who is going to judge needs to be an L1 trainer and have passed the online judges course. Thoughts?

No more friends judging friends.

Next Week: Declaring team or individual, leaderboard shenanigans, and do-overs. 

Read the rest of the series:

The CrossFit Games Open Is Broken, Part 1

The CrossFit Games Open Is Broken, Part 3: Team Competition and Leaderboard Shenanigans

The CrossFit Games Open Is Broken, Part 4: Judging of Video Submissions

Photos provided by CrossFit LA.