For most of my teenaged and adult life, I’ve been what they fondly refer to as a “gym rat.”
Whether it’s running, lifting weights or hitting a heavy bag hours on end, I simply enjoy the endorphin rush that a vigorous workout provides. It also affords me the privilege of saying that I carry just five pounds more than I did during my prolonged collegiate career in the 1970s when my metabolism was equivalent to that of a hummingbird.
By my estimate, I’ve plied my recreational hobby in roughly 300 facilities across the country including the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif., the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, and the landmark swimming pool at the Intercontinental Hotel in Chicago.
Despite my passion for exercise, I still tend to view health clubs in the same light as used car dealers who air infomercials on late night cable TV. In essence, their credibility is about on par with The New York Times.
Experience has been a good, if often painful, teacher.
I’ve been a member of no less than three different gyms that placed no-notice padlocks on their doors and somehow forgot to refund membership dues.
One time, as my wife and I pulled into the parking lot of a club we’d recently joined, we watched in astonishment as the equipment was being carried out and loaded into a tractor trailer to be auctioned off at a bankruptcy sale.
I’ve also heard consumer horror stories of “bait and switch” tactics regarding membership plans, and others about club employees who were robbing guest lockers and later reselling such items as watches and jewelry.
Which is why it came as exactly no surprise to me last week when the SEC filed fraud charges against Bally Total Fitness charging the chain with years of accounting improprieties.
The commission charged that Ballys’ statements from the period between 1997-2003 contained more than two-dozen “improprieties” and that said problems caused Ballys’ to overstate its originally reported year-end 2001 stockholders' equity by nearly $1.8 billion, or more than 340 percent.
If you think those who sell subprime mortgages carry an unflattering reputation, the nightmarish stories emanating from that segment come quite close to — albeit less expensive — to those I’ve heard about this health club chain and others like it.
I had one friend who threatened to assault a Bally manager, who not only switched his membership to a more expensive plan, but refused to refund his money when he’d uncovered the scheme. And this from a rather meek guy who worked as a librarian.
In its complaint, the SEC said Bally fraudulently accounted for three types of revenue it received from its members: initiation fees, prepaid dues and reactivation fees. The commission also accused Bally of fraudulently accounting for membership acquisition costs.
Bally's was a publicly traded company until May of 2007, when its trading was suspended. Two months later it filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and later emerged as a private entity.
To be fair, Bally is certainly not the only chain of fitness centers that has come under scrutiny by lawmakers and officials. Because it was once a public company, it just put the problem in the regulatory spotlight.
The industry is so unregulated it makes professional wrestling look above board by comparison and is fairly far back in the line to be reformed.
Until then, the exercise that I’d most recommend is caution.
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