Papa John's founder steps down as CEO after criticizing National Football League protests

John Schnatter who founded the Papa John’s pizza chain in the 1980s is leaving the chief executive seat

John Schnatter is stepping down as CEO, nearly two months after he suggested NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem was to blame for slow sales.

"I am so proud of Steve - he has excelled at every job he's ever held at Papa John's - from being an hourly customer service rep, to a delivery driver, store general manager, director of operations, franchisee and most recently President", said Papa John's founder, John Schnatter, in a statement.

He founded Papa John's more than 30 years ago and owes a large part of his personal fame to advertising with the National Football League, as well as Peyton Manning's ties to the company. Shares of the pizza chain have lost about a third of their value this year, putting them on course for the first annual decline since 2008.

Now Papa John's may decide to find a new pitchman besides Schnatter. Though the executive will continue to focus on product quality and customer satisfaction, he also plans to pursue "his personal passion for entrepreneurship, leadership development and education", Papa John's said.

As he takes the helm on January 1, he'll have to cope with slowing growth.

Schnatter has always been high-profile figure in the restaurant industry. Jones, who owns more than 100 Papa John's franchises, has been a staunch opponent of the anthem protests, even promising to bench any of his players who kneel for the anthem.

The pizza chain announced on Thursday that founder, John Schnatter, will step down as CEO next month.

Jones had praised Schnatter in the wake of his comments on player protests, calling the Papa John's CEO "one of the great Americans" in an interview on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.

Goodell critics have said that he should force players to stand for the anthem.

In a conference call with shareholders in November, he claimed that the protests were taking a large bite out of the company's sales.

Later that month, the Louisville, Kentucky-based company said it didn't intend to be polarizing with the remarks.

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