About two months after he publicly criticized the NFL for its handling of player protests, Papa John's Founder John Schnatter will step down as CEO. Schnatter will be succeeded by current Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on January 1, the company announced Thursday.
Schnatter is not only the CEO, he is the face of the company. He appears in many of Papa John's commercials, often alongside former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. His face is also on the company's pizza boxes. The Papa will remain the company's largest shareholder and chairman of the board.
Papa John's sales slowed this year, and Schnatter publicly pointed the finger at NFL player protests against inequality in America and the mistreatment of people of color by police. "NFL leadership has hurt Papa John's shareholders," Schnatter said on a November 1 earnings call. He continued, claiming the protests "should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago."
Papa John's apologized for Schnatter's comments two weeks later, following criticism from the left and support from white supremacists. "We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players' movement to create a new platform for change," read the company's statement. "We also believe, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both."
It was not the first time Schnatter has sparked controversy. His 2017 book promoted the virtues of deregulation, and he caused a stir in 2012 when he said the Affordable Care Act will be a "lose-lose" situation for his franchisees and employees.
Ritchie did not say if the NFL comments played into the decision to have Schnatter step down. He simply said it is "the right time to make this change." Schnatter also stepped down as CEO for three years in 2005.
There was no announcement as to whether Schnatter would continue to appear as the company spokesperson.
Schnatter founded Papa John's out of a closet in his father's bar over 30 years ago. Today there are more than 5,000 locations, and the company is a major sponsor of the NFL.