As the camera rolled, Russell Berger paced back and forth before a whiteboard in a dark gym. The CrossFit spokesperson talked in somber tones, wearing a shirt with the company’s logo over a pair of crossbones.
CrossFit was under siege, he said. Its hard-charging workouts had rapidly become a multimillion-dollar global success, and now the mainstream fitness industry was fighting back — and fighting dirty. So headquarters had been working to protect the brand and uphold the “covenant” that CrossFit had made with its thousands of affiliate gyms, he said. “These battles that we’re fighting are incredibly important and are really a noble cause.”
Over the next 30 minutes of this March 2015 video, he scribbled names, arrows, and dates on the board, taking his audience chronologically through CrossFit’s war with its main rival, the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
The NSCA was a pillar of the fitness industry. For decades, its scientific guidelines had shaped training in gyms, competitive athletics, the military, and law enforcement. If you wanted to be a personal trainer, it was one of the few places you’d go to get certified.
But in 2011, Berger said, a top member of the NSCA wrote an “unscientific, manufactured hit piece” about how CrossFit could hurt members of the armed forces. Then in 2013, an NSCA journal published a study claiming that CrossFit had a 16% injury rate.
This was “fraudulent data” and “scientific misconduct,” Berger said. “They are intentionally manipulating incoming papers on CrossFit to create the perception that we’re dangerous.”
And so, to protect the reputations of its affiliates around the world, CrossFit had sued the NSCA for false advertising and unfair competition, alleging that it had printed “junk ‘science’ intended to scare participants away.”
Under the YouTube video (“CrossFit: The Good Fight”), a few of the 96,000 viewers sneered at Berger’s conspiratorial tone. “Crossfit is increasingly sounding like Scientology!” one wrote. Joked another, “Do you ever feel all alone in your room with nobody to talk to?”
In his relentless quest to take down the fitness establishment, Berger’s dealt with a lot of critics. And he never backs down.
The NSCA would go on to cite this video as well as The Russells — a CrossFit blog written by Berger and his colleague Russell Greene — in a countersuit accusing the company of defamation. On the blog, the Russells had repeatedly written that the NSCA had committed “fraud,” and that the organization’s leaders were influenced by funding from an industry whose products were the antithesis of health, Big Soda.
Now, four years into these ongoing lawsuits, it turns out that there was something to Berger’s conspiracy theories. According to more than 1,500 pages of documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the CrossFit study was indeed tainted by phony data. After it was published, the study was retracted, the journal’s editor stepped down, the Ohio State University professor who led the study resigned, and a judge accused the NSCA of lying under oath and withholding evidence. Just this month, two of the NSCA’s three law firms stopped representing it, and its insurer filed a complaint to get out of covering the nearly $500,000 in penalties lodged on the organization for failing to produce evidence.
As made clear in that YouTube video, Berger was devoted to CrossFit and went to great lengths to protect the brand. In another version of this story, he’d now be celebrating a hard-fought victory against his enemies. But that's not what happened.
Instead, with a couple of tweets this month — Pride Month — he thrust his extreme religious beliefs into the public spotlight, set off a firestorm in the LGBT community, and went from being CrossFit's greatest defender to its most urgent threat.
Berger has been hooked on CrossFit since 2005, when he was a young Army sergeant at a battalion based in Savannah, Georgia. “I’m not a particularly big guy,” the 32-year-old told BuzzFeed News in early May. “So for me to be in that unit, I had to find ways to pull my weight in other ways.” He was drawn to CrossFit’s tough, alternating blend of gymnastics, weights, and aerobics, plus its obsession with discipline and quantifiable results.
When he left the military in 2008, he opened a CrossFit gym in his wife’s hometown of Huntsville, Alabama. Then he moved up the company’s ranks, writing for the website and teaching people across the country how to become trainers.
He studied religion at Liberty University in Virginia and holds self-described “orthodox, historic Christian beliefs.” In a Facebook post last summer, for example, he bemoaned how many Christians have turned away from the true gospel: “that man is depraved and in desperate need of reconciliation to God.” The modern church, he wrote, had become soft — all about self-esteem, materialism, and loving others by “affirming and celebrating their sins.”
Sometimes Berger’s spiritual side spilled into his work life. When he helped lead the company’s first trainer course in Israel in 2014, he filmed his visits to historic sites for a six-part, CrossFit-branded video series called The Holy Land With Russell Berger.
But mostly, he preached the gospel of CrossFit. Soon Berger was working with another young employee, Russell Greene, to keep tabs on the company’s rivals, from the private equity firm that unsuccessfully sought a 50% stake in 2012, to gyms allegedly infringing on its trademark.
When the Russells first saw the 2013 study in the NSCA journal, they were a bit perplexed. The paper’s take-home message — that CrossFit lowered athletes’ body fat after a 10-week fitness challenge — was positive. But they were skeptical of one line: that 9 of the 54 participants, or 16%, had dropped out due to “overuse or injury.”
It’s true that CrossFit can cause injuries, especially in the shoulders, lower back, and knees. In 2005, founder and then-CEO Greg Glassman acknowledged that rhabdomyolysis, a potentially fatal condition caused by muscle injuries, had led five CrossFitters to be hospitalized. “It can kill you,” he told the New York Times that year. But studies find that CrossFitters develop 1.9 to 3.1 injuries per every 1,000 hours of training — a rate close to those of similar activities, like powerlifting (1 to 5.8 injuries), Olympic weightlifting (2.4 to 3.3), and gymnastics (2.6 to 4.6).
So the figures cited in the 2013 paper seemed suspicious to the CrossFit team. The study’s authors didn’t define what they meant by “overuse” or “injury,” for one thing, and didn’t describe any of the injuries. What’s more, 2 of the 54 participants supposedly dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, a number that seemed far too low.
Berger set out to get to the bottom of the data. First, he called the CrossFit gym in Columbus, Ohio, where the study had taken place. The owner, Mitch Potterf, was furious. Yes, he had let Ohio State University researchers study his clients, but no, he wasn’t aware of any of them getting hurt from it. And now one of his competitors was sharing the paper on Facebook, citing injuries as a reason to avoid CrossFit. (Potterf declined to comment for this story, but described what happened in a 2015 deposition.)
Next, Berger got in touch with four of the dropouts. All of them said that the scientists had never followed up with them about why they had left the study.
So Berger knew something was seriously wrong by the time he asked Steven Devor, the professor who led the research, if he’d be up for a recorded phone interview for a story on CrossFit’s website. Berger started the 37-minute call by asking about the paper’s basic findings.
“In my mind, this is, like, the best thing that’s happened to CrossFit,” Devor told him, according to a recording of the April 23, 2013, call reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Sure, OK, Berger said. But what about that injury data?
“You know, I mean, they’re everyday people, Russell, that have gotten into this,” the scientist said. “They might not all be the fittest guys and gals on the block, and all of a sudden they’re beating themselves several days a week, doing really complicated movements that maybe they don’t do as correctly as they should be.”
When Berger informed him that four of the dropouts had recounted a very different story, Devor stumbled. “Yeah, Russell, I’m going to— I don’t— I mean, I guess, I can’t answer that intelligently, because I’m not the one that collected the data. And I’m not trying to skirt your question, because you have a legitimate question.”
But in an email two days later, the professor was far less conciliatory.
“We have published a completely unbiased, no agenda, thoroughly peer reviewed scientific paper,” Devor wrote. “We stand behind all of the data that we either collected or that was reported to us.” (Devor did not respond to a request for comment.)
The study dealt a deep blow. “Is CrossFit Killing Us?” asked an Outside magazine story with nearly 10,000 Facebook shares, likes, and comments. Women’s Health warned: “The fitness trend is blowing up — and diehards’ muscles may be blowing out.”
Inspired largely by this flurry of press, the Russells launched their blog and began strategizing what to do about their number one enemy, the NSCA.
Greene began filling a Google Doc with all of his opposition research, titled “CrossFit vs. Big Soda.” It’s now 270 pages long. Once, he covered a whiteboard with lines and arrows connecting PepsiCo and Coca-Cola employees to various rings of the NSCA, from low-level members to board members, to the editors of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, which had published the study.
“And that’s exactly what you would do if you were trying to figure out how to dismantle the Islamic State, for example,” Greene, 31, recently said in CrossFit’s tiny Washington, DC, headquarters, wearing a CrossFit T-shirt depicting a snake crushing a soda can (“Truth Is Our Venom,” the shirt said). International politics and terrorist networks were his areas of study at Georgetown University, and when he talks about his work now, he can sound like he’s straight out of Homeland: “You got the high-value targets, the medium-value targets, the low-value targets. You work up the hierarchy.”
The Russells contend that the NSCA and a similar group, the American College of Sports Medicine, are out to get CrossFit because the upstart has threatened their long-standing dominance of the industry. Historically, a personal trainer would pay to get certified through an organization like the NSCA (which claims more than 45,000 members) or the ACSM (more than 50,000 members). But now a growing number — some 134,000 trainers around the world — are choosing to get credentialed by CrossFit. Through its training program and nearly 14,000 affiliate gyms, with an estimated 4 million participants, the company claims to take in about $150 million in annual revenue.
The NSCA, a nonprofit that brings in $11 million a year, disputes CrossFit’s claim that the two are business rivals. But, as CrossFit has pointed out, the NSCA and ACSM paid for lobbying that would have forced CrossFit trainers to get licensed — and pay to join groups like theirs. Not only that, but internal NSCA documents produced through litigation suggest that it does think of CrossFit as a competitor. An internal memo in 2013, for example, noted that programs like CrossFit were “the greatest challenge facing the NSCA” and that if the NSCA didn’t help shape military training, “some idiotic organization like CrossFit will.”
The Russells dug into their rivals. Greene worked mostly off-camera, while Berger, a charismatic speaker, often appeared in the press as a company spokesperson. After an ESPN story in 2014 raised concerns about CrossFit’s safety, Berger played defense on TV. “There are so many organizations in the traditional fitness industry that feel threatened by what CrossFit has been doing,” he said. “There is a growing feeling that they need to target CrossFit and try and paint it as something dangerous and scary.”
But the bulk of the Russells’ campaign lived on the blog, where they dissected the fitness industry’s ties to the sugary beverage business. Berger likens Big Soda’s funding of health research to the way “the big tobacco companies kept obfuscating and confusing the public about the relationship between health and tobacco smoke in order to continue to sell cigarettes,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It’s almost like they’re working out of the same playbook, honestly.”
Gatorade’s research arm, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, for example, has funded or conducted hundreds of academic studies about nutrition, health, training, and hydration since the late 1980s. Gatorade, which is owned by PepsiCo, also sponsors the NSCA, at a cost of at least $100,000 a year in the past, as well as the ACSM. One controversial result of that funding, according to critics, is that the ACSM downplayed the risks of overdrinking in hydration guidelines for athletes. (A spokesperson said the NSCA “does not comment on matters involved in pending litigation,” and that less than 2% of its revenue comes from sponsorships. A Gatorade representative said its relationships with the ACSM and NSCA “have no influence on their research agenda, position statements or any other scientific policy initiatives or decisions.”)
Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has funneled more than $137 million to scientists and health groups since 2010, including at least $6 million to the ACSM and its officials. (Coca-Cola said it had discontinued its funding of “a number of” programs and partnerships as it introduced guidelines for funding research in 2016. The ACSM “maintains strict policies to ensure independent decision-making by ACSM and avoidance of commercialization,” and less than 10% of its $12 million annual budget comes from industry funding, according to spokesperson Paul Branks.)
Through their blog, the Russells made themselves the unlikeliest scientific watchdogs: a pair of for-profit company men with no academic training in science. When calling bullshit on their adversaries, they were often rude, aggressive, freewheeling. That didn’t mean they were wrong.
“It’s not that the Russells are PhDs — they don’t need to be,” said Robert Lustig, a pediatrics professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who closely studies the sugar industry’s influence on science. “But if you use the science, you’ll come to the right answer, and they’ve used the science to come to the right answer.”
The Russells’ research became a huge part of CrossFit’s marketing, spurring a national campaign against the soda industry. Glassman, the founder, began meeting with lawmakers, holding rallies about the dangers of soda, and pouring money into lobbying for laws that would require federal agencies and researchers to more clearly disclose their financial conflicts.
Turning a fairly obscure scientific study into a crusade against Big Soda was a genius publicity move, buffing CrossFit’s brash, pro-health, anti-corporate image while aligning its competitors with sugar and corruption. It was, as Glassman put it in 2016, a “holy war.” (This war is perhaps most vividly depicted by a cartoon header on a CrossFit website, in which a wrecking ball of “justice” swings from CrossFit’s office into the NSCA, and wads of cash float down on bug-eyed doctors who drink soda as they saw off patients’ limbs.)
And there was a hashtag, #CrushBigSoda. In June 2015, CrossFit Instagrammed and tweeted a Coke ad, replacing its “Open happiness” slogan with “Open diabetes.” The next day, pop singer Nick Jonas, who has Type 1 diabetes, tweeted an admonishment: “This is not cool.” Greene tweeted back a screenshot showing that Coca-Cola sponsored Jonas’s concerts, and Glassman told Good Morning America, “Fuck Nick Jonas.” When a Twitter user accused CrossFit of pulling a publicity stunt, Berger shot back: “Everything said was factually accurate. Sugar can cause diabetes. It kills people.”
Berger would occasionally share more incendiary views on social media too. Once, in reference to someone who had been rejected from a CrossFit trainer course, he tweeted: “it would’ve been diff if he was black. #affirmativeaction.” Another time, he said that the most dangerous place to live in the US was a “mother’s womb,” appending “#endabortionnow.” On his Facebook page, he talked about trying to share the gospel with women outside of Huntsville’s sole abortion clinic. “We won’t end the murder of children in this country without the gospel,” he wrote.
Berger’s Facebook and Twitters followers, as well as some Redditors, noticed that he held these beliefs. But they wouldn’t become an issue at work until much later.
Occasionally, the Russells’ efforts spilled beyond the pages of their blog. The most dramatic confrontation happened in February 2016, when the duo went to Atlanta for a workshop organized by an ACSM program called Exercise Is Medicine.
Exercise Is Medicine was founded to push doctors to prescribe fitness training from “trusted” trainers with a program credential. The Russells saw a more mercenary motive: to allow fitness trainers to someday bill insurance companies for their services. (A program leader once boasted that it could become “the Big Pharma of fitness,” according to The Russells.) But this potentially lucrative credential was originally only available to members of groups like the ACSM or NSCA. CrossFit trainers were boxed out.
And most damning of all, at least for the Russells: Exercise Is Medicine was cofounded by Coca-Cola in 2007. Even though Coca-Cola had pulled its support just before the workshop, the Russells believed that its influence would live on in the program’s explicit refusal to give any personalized nutritional advice to clients.
What started as a reconnaissance mission in Atlanta turned into an invasion. After a talk by diabetes researcher Felipe Lobelo from Emory University, Berger raised his hand from the audience and fired off a question, according to what he later wrote on The Russells: “So should we tell our clients to stop drinking soda?”
Lobelo punted, saying that no one knows what a healthy diet is. A trainer sitting behind Berger agreed, saying it was best to avoid nutritional advice.
Berger turned to Lobelo again, asking him pointedly about his school’s financial entanglements. “Is your view on nutrition at all influenced by the fact that your department at Emory University has received over 2 million dollars from Coca-Cola?”
As the room filled with “mumbling and shuffling sounds,” according to The Russells, Lobelo replied that he himself hadn’t taken any money from the company. (Lobelo, who leads Exercise Is Medicine’s research arm, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Throughout the weekend, Greene and Berger raised their hands over and over to argue, question, and provoke. And once back home, Berger wrote a 4,200-word conspiratorial missive about the events in Atlanta (which, he noted, just so happened to be Coke’s headquarters).
When asked whether it’s true that Exercise Is Medicine avoids giving nutrition advice, Branks, the ACSM spokesperson, said that “no one can intrude into the scope of practice of registered dietitians.”
From the Russells’ perspective, the meeting’s purpose was clear: to brainwash trainers to care about exercise, and only exercise. “Remember,” Berger wrote, “that’s exactly what Coca-Cola wants you to think.”
As Berger’s investigations plummeted down one rabbit hole after another, some of his suspicions about the depraved world of scientific research turned out to be true.
In 2013, after Devor went silent about the injury data in his CrossFit study, Berger emailed the NSCA with his concerns, to no response. Then he got on the phone with William Kraemer, a big shot in the NSCA who, since 1987, had been the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
As Berger later recalled in a deposition, Kraemer said during the 30-minute call that he was “unsurprised” by the 16% injury rate, because programs like CrossFit had a higher injury risk.
Pushing back, Berger asked if Kraemer had a professional responsibility to investigate the data. Kraemer replied: “No, I don’t, because if I was to investigate every study that somebody had a problem with, we would never get anything published.”
What Berger didn’t know at the time of that phone call was that the year before, when Devor had submitted the first draft of the study to the journal, it didn’t mention injuries at all. In his first email to Kraemer, the scientist called it “an exciting study” that would “support the mission of Crossfit gyms.”
Kraemer forwarded the submission to another editor, according to legal documents, with a note: “[A] lot of context is needed for this,” he said, “fit but at what cost etc.”
Devor’s graduate student and a coauthor of the paper, Michael Smith, kept submitting new versions of their study to the journal’s managing editor: Kraemer’s wife, Joan. And every time, her emails back to Smith said that if the paper didn’t discuss injuries, it risked rejection. It needed to “caution readers,” she explained, because “many people do get injured doing these types of workouts.” By way of example, she cited an older paper, cowritten by her husband, that expressed concern about CrossFit’s injury risk among military personnel. (In a deposition, William Kraemer would say that he had actually written all the editorial comments signed by his wife. Joan Kraemer did not respond to a request for comment.)
And when Smith did add a reference to injuries, the journal’s editorial office urged him to elaborate because the topic was a “major issue.” Smith obeyed.
But even now, it’s unclear where those injury figures came from. Smith said in an affidavit that he got the 16% injury rate from a meeting with Potterf, the gym owner. But Potterf denied that he ever mentioned injuries, and another student at the meeting was later unable to recall what was said, documents show. (Smith did not return a request for comment.)
What’s more, none of the people who dropped out have ever claimed they were hurt by the CrossFit challenge, and almost all of them have signed legal declarations saying so. Two of the dropouts did say they’d gotten injured from something outside of the program. A correction later added to the study noted that there were “only” two injuries, without noting that they didn’t come from the challenge.
Unfounded as the injury data may have been, it was not a focus of Ohio State’s investigation into the study. Although a committee found “evidence of sloppiness” in this data, it was not “sufficient evidence of possible research misconduct,” according to a report of the university’s findings, obtained by BuzzFeed News through a public records request.
What it did find, however, was a lack of proper ethics approval for this and two other studies of Devor’s: one about the alleged downsides of the paleo diet and another about running marathons. Because of these serious oversights, the school concluded that the professor “did knowingly, intentionally, and recklessly, commit research misconduct related to the falsification in reporting of research.” Last summer, all three papers were retracted, and Devor resigned.
Kraemer, on the other hand, remains on the faculty at Ohio State, which he joined in the fall of 2014. That year and the year before, he cowrote four papers in his own journal that critiqued exercise methods used in CrossFit. Berger sounds incredulous when he speaks about the “Kraemer quartet,” which he and Greene say mischaracterized the techniques.
That isn’t the only issue they’ve had with Kraemer’s science. Last year on the blog, Berger wrote about a study in which Kraemer reported health benefits from a snack bar, but didn’t disclose that he was also a paid adviser to the company. “Could it be that he failed to remember on purpose?” Berger wrote.
BuzzFeed News also found that, for years, Kraemer’s research has been funded by a suite of fitness and nutrition companies, everything from the workout apparel brand Under Armour, to a “cryocompression” garment maker called Aquilo Sports, to the Korean ginseng supplement manufacturer ILHWA. All of these studies reached positive conclusions about those companies’ products. (Under Armour said it has not funded Kraemer since 2014 and declined to disclose how much it spent before that. It also says it did not influence the studies’ results, and most of the products he studied did not make it to market. ILHWA, which also declined to share how much it had spent on the research, said through a spokesperson that it had teamed up with Kraemer because he is “well-known in the industry of sports nutrition.”)
Kraemer did not return multiple requests for comment.
It is neither uncommon nor inherently unethical for industry to fund scientists. And CrossFit, for all its bluster about the evils of corporate entanglements, does it too. The company spent $47,000 on a pair of studies suggesting that its regimen helped people with diabetes, for example, and another $300,000 on two guideline papers drafted by dozens of scientists, which laid out the risks of overdrinking and sugary beverages. (CrossFit said it did not influence the content of these papers.)
At the beginning of this year, Kraemer stepped down from his editorial post at the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. After three decades at the helm, he explained, “I felt that it was time for me to close this service aspect of my career.”
As the lawsuits’ proceedings brought out one damning tidbit after another about the 2013 CrossFit study, the Russells were blogging and YouTubing it all.
Berger called the paper the very definition of “corrupted science” in June 2014. “[T]he NSCA knowingly published fabricated injury data about CrossFit,” Greene wrote in June 2015. A guest post from Glassman that month declared that the ACSM and NSCA had “engaged in long-term, systematic, regular, and collaborative fraud — fraud that is scientific, academic, and tortious — in their representatives’ collective statements, publications, press releases, and in a paid public-relations campaign against CrossFit.”
In May 2016, the NSCA sued Berger, Greene, Glassman, and CrossFit in San Diego Superior Court, arguing that the Russells had made statements “libelous on their face” that had cost the organization money and “loss of its business reputation.”
This move would spectacularly backfire. In a deposition for the California case, an NSCA employee admitted that parts of his declaration from the other lawsuit had been false. That, among other events, led to the NSCA turning over hundreds of internal emails and other documents that it should have, but had not, produced for the original case, according to a judge.
“There is plainly sufficient evidence to find willfulness, bad faith, or fault on the part of the NSCA in withholding the recently discovered documents and in lying under oath in the federal proceedings,” wrote US District Judge Janis Sammartino.
A few months ago, in a likely unprecedented motion, CrossFit won the right to learn the identities of the article’s anonymous peer reviewers. A trial for the defamation lawsuit could happen this summer, while the “junk science” one could go to court next year.
So things were going well for CrossFit on the afternoon of June 6, when Glassman said in an interview that he couldn’t be prouder of the Russells’ efforts to uncover the truth. “They’re two of the more important employees the company has, period,” he said. “They are the R&D department of the battle, without a doubt.”
But within just a few hours, Glassman would fire Berger over a series of anti-LGBT tweets.
A CrossFit gym in Indiana had canceled a Pride Month event and was subsequently forced to close due to the public backlash. Voicing his support for the gym’s owner, Berger wrote that “celebrating ‘pride’ is a sin” and that “the intolerance of the LGBTQ ideology toward any alternative views is mind-blowing.”
Berger deleted the offending tweets, but the damage was done. “.@CrossFit, you in danger girl,” wrote one Twitter user. “CrossFit is trash,” feminist author Roxane Gay declared. “Was before this will be after this.” Others pointed out that even though CrossFit has been dubbed possibly the “gayest sport on the planet,” a transgender athlete had sued for not being allowed to compete in the CrossFit Games as a woman.
Berger had a few defenders, including conservative commentators Erick Erickson and Mike Cernovich, who argued that he had been punished for “being a Christian.” But Glassman condemned him outright, telling BuzzFeed News: “He needs to take a big dose of ‘shut the fuck up’ and hide out for a while.”
The other Russell was in the middle of a whirlwind week, which included meetings with Rhode Island lawmakers about the dangers of soda. When he finally looked at his phone and saw the uproar, it was surprising, but in retrospect, not totally unexpected.
Greene told BuzzFeed News that he’d long known about his co-blogger’s views, but that Berger always kept them separate from work. (Greene said he disagrees with Berger’s anti-LGBT prejudice, as well as the fact that he expressed it in relation to a CrossFit gym.)
For now, Greene isn’t sure whether Berger’s unexpected exit will affect their ongoing lawsuits. He wouldn’t be surprised, he said, if CrossFit’s rivals seize on the incident in an attempt to discredit their litigation or anti-soda campaign.
The scandal has left the brand, so known for its contrarian, envelope-pushing barrage on the fitness establishment, wondering if it should tone it down. “I think we all at CrossFit are going to be much more mindful about social media,” Greene said.
But he plans to keep digging, writing, and raising hell — just no longer as one-half of The Russells. After the Berger scandal broke, the blog got a new name: Keep Fitness Legal. Just this week, Greene announced that the nonprofit foundations for the country’s main health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, had failed to disclose the sources and amounts of various donations, as required by law. (A representative for the CDC’s foundation said that it “follows high standards of reporting” and discloses its financial condition, partners, and donors. The NIH’s foundation said through a spokesperson that it “complies with applicable law and takes the issue of transparency and disclosure very seriously.”)
Berger was apologetic about what happened, but he meant what he wrote. As he told BuzzFeed News shortly before he was fired, those tweets were part of his mission to make people healthier. At CrossFit, that was about physical health. And as a biblical scholar, “I ask questions like, how can we spiritually be healthier?” he said. “That requires me to look to Scripture for answers. One of those is related to sins, sexual sin.”
Berger is still fighting. He’s lawyered up with the First Liberty Institute, a law firm dedicated to “defending religious liberty for all Americans.” In a press release this week, his attorney Michael Berry cited Glassman’s “inappropriate, harmful, and intimidating language” about Berger. “No matter who you are or what you believe, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee because of his religious beliefs,” Berry said.
Asked if Berger plans to sue CrossFit, Berry said in an interview, “Nothing has been put on the table or taken off the table.”
Meanwhile, Berger is working on a master’s degree in divinity. And, after all those years of public speaking and teaching on CrossFit’s behalf, he recently began serving as a pastor.
His first sermon, in April, included a cautionary note about social media — “which is really built to encourage and reward shameless self-love” — and ended with a warning for nonbelievers. If they put their trust in Christ, their sins will be forgiven, Berger promised, according to a recording posted online. But for those who turn away, he said, “you will be the enemy that God reduces to a footstool under his son’s feet.” ●
Peter Aldhous contributed reporting to this story.
This story has been updated with more details about how Russell Berger discussed his religious views online, and to clarify his position at his church.