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Why Papa John's reversal on NFL protests won't fly

Daniel Roberts

Papa John’s is attempting a public reversal.

The company, on its official Twitter account, apologized last week for “statements made on our earnings call” two weeks earlier. On the Nov. 1 call, Papa John’s reported same-store sales growth of just 1% in the quarter, which missed analyst expectations. CEO John Schnatter blamed the flat sales on the NFL: “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction… NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”

Now, in three tweets, Papa John’s says those comments “were describing the factors that impact our business and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive. That definitely was not our intention… We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe together, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”

Is there, really?

Certainly it is possible for players to protest during the national anthem while still honoring the anthem and the flag — a number of players have sought alternate ways to do this, such as standing with linked arms rather than kneeling. But in 2017, football fans have generally not allowed brands to play to both sides of the political controversy hanging over this NFL season.

Papa John’s is trying to have it both ways at a time when consumers will not allow it.

Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter (AP)

Protests “should have been nipped in the bud”

Pizza lovers may find it difficult to take Papa John’s at its word when it now says, “We support the players’ movement,” because it is such a direct contradiction of comments Schnatter himself made on the earnings call.

Schnatter mentioned the NFL 44 times on the call. Among other digs at leadership, he most notably said that the player protests, “should have been nipped in the bud” by the NFL last season, when Colin Kaepernick first started kneeling. That comment matches comments made by President Donald Trump ; Schnatter donated to Trump’s campaign. Schnatter’s comment also matches comments made by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is currently fighting a “civil war” against his fellow owners and commissioner Roger Goodell. Jones is a Papa John’s franchisee, which has led some to speculate that  Jones was behind Schnatter’s comments .

Now Schnatter’s company says it supports the players. But it also says, “We should honor our anthem.” And there is recent history to suggest that brands cannot effectively claim to do both at once.

Nike, Bose and other brands have taken sides

After the third weekend of this NFL season, when Trump unleashed a verbal tirade on the NFL at a Sept. 22 rally in Alabama and players across the league responded by kneeling or linking arms, NFL corporate sponsors were pushed to issue statements. Most stayed silent, but a handful issued statements that proved telling.

Nike was unequivocal: “Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” Hyundai took the same tone: “We stand for and respect individuals’ freedoms to express their first amendment rights in any peaceful manner in which they choose. We also stand for inclusion, freedom and all that represents those values.”

Bose, on the other hand, put out a statement that emphasized the flag first, and ended with support for freedom of expression, but added a hedge: “Bose was founded in the United States, and our world headquarters is in Massachusetts, where it’s been for over 50 years. It’s now surrounded by several other Bose facilities — and at all of them, at all times, we proudly fly the American flag. It’s a symbol of our great country which protects the freedom for every person to express their views. We respect that freedom, whether we agree with those views or not.”

Under Armour issued a tweet that said the company “stands for the flag and  by our Athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America.”


It was seen by many as an attempt to have it both ways. And there is relevant context here: Under Armour had been burned already this year for its political stance. In January, CEO Kevin Plank, in a CNBC interview, called Trump an “asset for this country.” That led Under Armour sponsored athletes like Steph Curry, Misty Copeland, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to speak out against Trump and Plank.

So it was understandable that Under Armour was reluctant to appear to take an obvious side either way (that is: for the player protests or against them, with Trump), but the effect was a net zero.

Papa John’s is attempting to do the same, but it’s two weeks late. Consumers might wonder: if Papa John’s is sorry for what Schnatter said, why did it take 14 days to say so? It appears more like an effort at PR damage control.

It’s worth noting, also, that Papa John’s didn’t pull back the actual claim that the NFL is to blame for its flat sales. It apologized not for the claims, but “to anyone that thought they were divisive.”

Of course, whether or not the NFL ratings dip is really the cause of Papa John’s disappointing sales is no longer the point. The larger question is how much damage has been done to the brand’s reputation after Schnatter’s comments, and after it was named the favorite pizza of Nazis .

And a middle-finger emoji directed to Nazis in a tweet isn’t likely to undo the damage overnight.


Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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