Lifestyle Food Papa John's John Schnatter Steps Down as CEO After Saying NFL National Anthem Protest Hurt Sales Starting next month, Schnatter, who appears in the chain's commercials and on its pizza boxes, will be stepping down according to a statement released by the company on Thursday By Karen Mizoguchi Published on December 21, 2017 07:26 PM Share Tweet Pin Email Papa John’s founder, John Schnatter, is no longer the chief executive officer of his company. Starting next month, Schnatter, who appears in the chain’s commercials and on its pizza boxes, will be stepping down according to a statement released by the company on Thursday. This comes just a few weeks after the 56-year-old blamed the NFL leadership’s handling of the ongoing national anthem protests for its lagging sales. Schnatter, whose Louisville, Kentucky-based business is an official sponsor of the NFL, remains the company’s biggest shareholder and will serve as chairman of the board. Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie was named his successor effective Jan. 1, 2018. “We couldn’t have a more proven leader to guide Papa John’s through its next stage of growth,” Schnatter said of Ritchie in the statement. Ritchie said new ads would come out next year, and that the company had “no plans to remove John from our communications,” according to the Associated Press. In November, Schnatter criticized the football league’s leadership for allowing the national anthem protests to continue. “The NFL has hurt us. We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this,” he said. Want the ultimate dish on the latest celebrity food news, plus exclusive recipes, videos and more? Click here to subscribe to the People Food newsletter. Denise Truscello/WireImage “The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country,” he also said during a conference call about the company’s earnings on Nov. 1. Papa John’s later reversed its position in a three-part public apology, now claiming they support the “players’ movement.” “The statements made on our earnings call 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,” the franchise wrote on Twitter. Since the 2017 season began, the NFL protests have sparked a national political debate, with countless celebrities standing in solidarity with the players kneeling during the anthem, while others—like President Donald Trump—call the movement unpatriotic. This is not the first time Schnatter has stepped away from the CEO role. In 2005, he returned about three years later.