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Papa John's CEO John Schattner
John Schnatter, Founder, Chairman and CEO of Papa John's International, Inc., holds up four fingers to celebrate the grand opening of Papa John's 4000th restaurant on Friday Sept. 14, 2012, in New Hyde Park, N.Y. Commemorative pizzas with the number 4000 were prepared for the event. (Photo by Kathy Kmonicek/Invision for Papa John's/AP Images)

Papa John's founder steps down as CEO weeks after NFL comments

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Papa John's founder John Schnatter will step down as CEO in January, about two months after he publicly criticized the NFL leadership over national anthem protests by football players.

The company announced that Schnatter will be replaced as chief executive by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1.

Schnatter, who appears in the chain's commercials and on its pizza boxes, and is the company's biggest shareholder, will remain chairman of the board.

Earlier this year, Schnatter blamed slow sales growth at Papa John's on the outcry surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem --Papa John's is a NFL sponser.

"The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country," Schnatter said during a conference call about the company's earnings on Nov. 1.

Papa John's apologized two weeks later, after white supremacists praised Schnatter's comments. The Louisville, Kentucky-based company distanced itself from the group, saying that it did not want them to buy their pizza.

Ritchie declined to say if the NFL comments played a role in Schnatter stepping down, only saying that it's "the right time to make this change."

Shares of Papa John's are down about 13 percent since the day before the NFL comments were made. The company's stock is down 30 percent since the beginning of the year.

Schnatter, 56, founded Papa John's more than three decades ago, when he turned a broom closet at his father's bar into a pizza spot. It has since grown to more than 5,000 locations.

Schnatter has also become the face of the company, showing up in TV ads with former football player Peyton Manning. Schnatter stepped away from the CEO role before, in 2005, but returned about three years later.

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