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Papa John's founder replaced as CEO weeks after blaming the NFL for sagging pizza sales

Papa Johns pizza founder John Schnatter in attendance with his original gold Chevrolet Camaro during NHRA qualifying for the US Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The founder of Papa John's International will step down as CEO next month, handing over the company less than two months after his controversial remarks about national anthem protests by NFL football players, for which the company later apologized.

John Schnatter, who is featured on Papa John's pizza boxes and in the chain's commercials, will be replaced by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1, the company announced Thursday. Schnatter, 56, is still the company's biggest shareholder and will continue to serve as chairman of the board.

In November, Schnatter sparked outrage by blaming sagging sales at Papa John's - a top sponsor and advertiser of the NFL - on the league's "poor leadership" in response to the national anthem demonstrations. He said the practice of players kneeling during the anthem to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice hurt the NFL's TV ratings, which in turn hurt the sales of his pizza, which is heavily advertised during games.

Schnatter said the protests could have been stopped by the NFL back when Colin Kaepernick began doing it during preseason games in the summer of 2016. This September President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who did not stand for the anthem, and sparked a divisive national conversation with repeated attacks on the NFL and its players, some of whom continued to kneel.

"Like many sponsors, we are in contact with the NFL and once the issue is resolved between the players and the owners, we are optimistic that the NFL's best years are ahead," Schnatter said, according to "But good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership."

Ritchie added at the time that Papa John's has been the most recognized NFL sponsor for the past two years - hinting that its success is more connected to the league than is the case for other pizza chains. He said that he expected the earnings decline for Papa John's "to persist" until "a solution is put in place" by the NFL for its player protests. Papa John's has been a league sponsor since 2010.

The company later apologized for its "divisive" comments.

Ritchie, who told the Wall Street Journal that he was poised to eventually replace Schnatter when he was named company president in 2015 , joined Papa Johns in 1996, making $6 an hour as a customer service representative, the company said.

He declined to specifically say whether the NFL controversy played a role in the timing of the transition - but told the Journal that "all of the PR things have been quite a distraction."

"I want to put the focus back on our people and pizza," he said.

Ritchie could not be immediately reached for comment.

Founded in 1984, Papa John's is the world's third-largest pizza delivery company with more than 5,000 locations, according to the company's statement. About 3,400 of those locations are in North America, and another 1,600 are overseas, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Schnatter, who has stepped down as CEO before, plans to pursue his personal passion for entrepreneurship, leadership development and education," the company said.