By Dan Bernstein —
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Everything’s a thing when it comes to the NFL these days, with no issue small enough to be unaffected by the whipsaw of some sociopolitical culture war. And while some affected by the chaos have done nothing to deserve any negative attention, you can’t say that about Papa John’s Pizza. They stepped in it and asked for it.
It started when eponymous company founder John Schnatter used an earnings call to blame the NFL for a decline in his sales, calling out commissioner Roger Goodell for not quashing the players’ movement to call national attention to racial inequality and injustice. He claimed two weeks ago that “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle” and that “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”
Reaction was swift and broad-based, with the company criticized heavily for not only pushing off its own financial headwinds onto a scapegoat but seeming to side openly against those merely decrying racial bias, police brutality against people of color, unfair sentencing practices and a juvenile justice system in dire need of reform. It didn’t help that it also soon became known that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones himself owns more than 100 Papa John’s stores, leading to reasonable speculation that Jones had urged Schnatter to attack Goodell as a proxy fighter in his own war to derail a contract extension for the commissioner.
It was an easy play to a perceived base for Papa John’s, perhaps, with their pizza more popular in the vast swaths of middle America than in the larger cities that enjoy proprietary styles and specific culinary histories. The people that like the pies made by the Kentucky-based company were more likely to be the same ones obtuse enough to believe that the player protests were in any way against or about the U.S. military. And not surprisingly, there was also positive sentiment that Papa John’s was fighting back against the uppity black players for not keeping quiet and knowing their place. That thinking then culminated in a specific endorsement.
Neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer posted a picture of a pizza with a pepperoni swastika and a caption “Sieg Heil Pizza” and proclaiming Papa John’s the “Official Pizza of the Alt-Right.” This forced the company to issue a bland statement in response but not before giving it enough time to enter the social media bloodstream and then the larger news cycle. It was only after rival companies began trolling them on Twitter that a spokesperson told a reporter from Louisville’s Courier-Journal that they “condemn racism in all forms.”
Then it was radio silence for days, during which their stock dropped nearly 13 percent.
On Tuesday night, Papa John’s decided on a non-apology apology for the comments, saying, “We apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive.” They claimed they “followed bad advice to stay quiet” and that, “When it became apparent our position wasn’t clear, we decided to change that.” They also now purport to “believe in the right to protest inequality” and gave a middle-finger emoji to Nazis.
The effort wasn’t well received on Twitter, with most of the reaction expressing some form of “too little, too late,” lamenting that it didn’t come directly from Schnatter himself and calling out the company for still failing to appreciate what the protest movement actually represented. “Weak sauce” was a popular retort.
As of Wednesday, Papa John’s stock was trading at 58.74 on the NASDAQ, down from 70.43 a month ago and 86.14 at this time last year.
Papa John ordered this one up with double toppings, and now he’s being forced to eat it.