Scandals What's Up With The Controversy Surrounding Papa John's?  

Donn Saylor
July 23, 2018 6.4k views 13 items

Former Papa John's CEO and chairman John Schnatter is no stranger to controversy. He's made headlines for criticizing a number of progressive political policies and social justice movements. Then, Schnatter allegedly used a racist slur during a conference call in May 2018. In light of that news, he was ousted as CEO of the company.

Schnatter wasn't always such a divisive figure. He started his namesake pizza restaurant in 1984 after converting a broom closet in his father's bar into a kitchen. The business grew to become one of the largest pizza takeout and delivery chains in the United States. Schnatter began putting his business in the center of topical and social discussions, and suddenly the brand was less about pizza and more about politics. The titular Papa John has taken stances toward the NFL, the Affordable Care Act, and government regulations.

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Photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

Schnatter Stepped Down As CEO After Blaming Kneeling NFL Protesters For Declining Sales

In December 2017, John Schnatter stepped down as CEO of Papa John's Pizza after making remarks about NFL protests. Apparently angered by football players taking a knee during the National Anthem, Schnatter made unsubstantiated claims that the protests hurt his business.

Schnatter said the NFL, which was a major sponsor of Papa John's, suffered from "poor leadership" after its handling of the players' protests. As a result, he argued, viewership and ratings for NFL games were down, and Papa John's patronage went down as well. There was immediate backlash, and Schnatter soon changed his tune. Upon surrendering his CEO position, he said, "Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership."

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Photo: Frazer Harrison/AMA2011/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

Schnatter Resigned After Using The N-Word On A Company Conference Call

While John Schnatter resigned as CEO in December 2017, he stayed on as chairman of Papa John's Pizza — for a few months, anyway. In July 2018, reports surfaced that he used a racial slur during a conference call in May. Ironically, the call was with a marketing agency trying to help Schnatter prevent any future public relations disasters.

When, during the course of the call, the agency asked him how he would distance his brand from its growing association with white supremacists, Schnatter replied, "Colonel Sanders called blacks n*****s" and never faced public outcry. Schnatter resigned as chairman right after the story broke.

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Photo: Angela Weiss/ACMA2012/Contributor/Getty Images Entertainment

Schnatter Claimed The Media Agency Conducting The Call Tried To Blackmail Him

On the heels of his resignation, Schnatter claimed that the marketing agency to whom he made the racist comment was trying to blackmail him in exchange for their silence over the incident. When he allegedly refused to pay their $6 million demand, they took his comments "and ran to Forbes, and Forbes printed it, and it went viral," Schnatter said.

Schnatter went on to say that the marketing agency provoked him into using the racial slur: "I was just repeating what somebody else said. I was actually kind of provoked," he told a Louisville TV station. "They were promoting that kind of vocabulary, and they kept hitting it and I was like no, we're not going to do that... that's not what we're about." The agency denies Schnatter's allegations.

Schnatter Says His Resignation Was "A Mistake"

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In a letter to the board of directors of Papa John's Pizza sent just after his exodus from the company, John Schnatter called his resignation "a mistake." He said, "I will not allow either my good name nor the good name of the company I founded and love to be unfairly tainted." He accused the board of pressuring him to resign based on "rumor and innuendo" without conducting their own investigation into the incident. He doesn't deny saying the n-word, however.