Jake Talbot's decision to wear a pro-Donald Trump shirt while publicly exercising has renewed a debate about the role of politics in health clubs—one whose scope has grown far beyond Talbot's Troy, Missouri, health club and even garnered the attention of The Washington Post.
On Jan. 20, Talbot, a U.S. Army veteran, wore a Trump campaign T-shirt to his local health club, CDY Fitness, where he has been a member for eight years, according to a report by KCTV 5. During Talbot's workout, club owner Liz Drew approached him and privately asked him to remove the shirt because she said it was offensive. Talbot maintains he had worn the shirt to the club many times before.
“I said it could be construed as racist and several of my members had complained about feeling uncomfortable when he wore that,” Drew told the Post, noting that she would have said the same to someone wearing apparel that supported a different politician or cause.
“There’s nothing wrong with the shirt, there’s nothing vulgar,” Talbot told The Post. “It’s just a supportive shirt, for who I’m supporting. I would never tell anybody else, I would never turn anyone away from anything because of their beliefs, their religion, their opinions, anything.”
Numerous lawyers have commented on the matter, explaining that Drew, as the owner of a private business, was within her rights to ask Talbot to remove the shirt.
However, Drew's effort to keep her club free of politics has achieved a seemingly ironic result. She has since received numerous angry phone calls at CDY Fitness, even one in which an anonymous caller declared her a "Nazi," she told the Post. Drew even deleted the club's Facebook page due to a recent influx of negative messages.
Talbot posted a video about the incident to his personal Facebook page, and it has since received hundreds of comments. He told the Post he has also been offered free club memberships in Florida and Texas.
Is this private-turned-public debate healthy and natural? Or is it a symptom of a larger, deep-rooted divisiveness that is now impacting the health club industry?
On Jan. 22, three days before the end of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Bahram Akradi, chairman and CEO of Life Time, Chanhassen, Minnesota, published an open letter that asked Americans to compel their elected officials “to focus on what is best for our citizens and our country.”
Akradi’s letter states: “I hope fellow business and community leaders also will join me in asking all politicians and the media to halt the ongoing blame game and, instead, focus on balanced, intellectual, and respectful discussions that address the important issues facing our country. We need to be the United States of America, not the Divided States of America. Only as a united nation will we solve the real problems we face right here at home, while positively influencing the world around us.”
Akradi’s philosophy permeates throughout his health clubs as well. Life Time, who ranked second on Club Industry's revenue-based Top 100 Health Clubs of 2018 list, made headlines in January 2018 when the health club company announced it would no longer show cable news channels on TVs at its 100-plus North American clubs. This new policy meant trading CNN, FOX, MSNBC and CNBC programming for shows on USA, A&E, Discovery, HGTV and ESPN.
In December 2018, Life Time spokeswoman Natalie Bushaw told Club Industry the ban is, in fact, not a "ban" but a culture-oriented policy that would continue throughout 2019.
"Life Time made the decision to remove cable opinion networks from our large TV screens in the cardio and fitness floor areas in January 2018," she told Club Industry. "It was not—and is not—a ban, rather a conscious decision with our healthy way of life philosophy in mind and commitment to provide an environment free of politically charged content. One year later, we stand by this decision and the positive influence it’s had upon our environments and the positive experience we aim to provide our members."
Numerous YMCAs also began banning cable news from their facility TVs as early as 2017.