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Papa John Is Cooked, Founder John Schnatter Steps Down as CEO of Pizza Chain

Exit as chairman comes after he publicly criticized the NFL leadership over national anthem protests by football players

Schnatter will be replaced as chief executive by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1, the company announced Thursday. Schnatter, who appears in the chain’s commercials and on its pizza boxes, and is the company’s biggest shareholder, remains chairman of the board, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The pizza chain is an official sponsor of the NFL, and Schnatter has been featured in an array of commercials with legendary quarterback Peyton Manning. But the company has been in hot water after Schnatter placed part of the blame on the company’s lagging sales on the national anthem protests.

“The NFL has hurt us,” CEO John Schnatter said on a call with media analysts in November. “And more importantly, by not resolving the current debacle to the players and owners satisfaction, NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.

 “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” he added, referring to the divisive nature of the ongoing player protests, which were started quietly last August by Colin Kaepernick and have picked up steam this season.

Shares of Papa John’s stock (which uses the unique PZZA stock symbol on NASDAQ) have been sacked in 2017, falling 32 percent to about $59 on Thursday. Schnatter founded the Kentucky-based chain in 1984, which now boasts more than 4,700 locations.