Papa John’s Pizza founder John Schnatter really stepped in it. Like a footprint in the middle of an extra-large pepperoni, his “mistake” was too visible, too easy to criticize for those who wanted to make it a big deal.
Schnatter was frustrated, and understandably so. Papa John’s had invested heavily in its partnership with the National Football League, 23 individual teams, and its association with NFL players like J.J. Watt and Peyton Manning. The pizza chain had poured money into game-day advertising. Yet, since December of last year when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, and stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Papa John’s sales had slowed, and its share price was down roughly 30%.
So during the November 1 earnings call, Schnatter got real. He blamed NFL leadership for “not resolving the current debacle” and said it “has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”
“Leadership starts at the top,” Schnatter stated. “And this is an example of poor leadership.”
He was right. It’s mind-boggling how the NFL and its commissioner, who has a base salary of $20 million a year, could have allowed the issue to fester, to turn off so many fans, to aggravate sponsors and to cost the league ad revenue. The only thing I might disagree with Schnatter on is that I don’t know if I’d call it “poor leadership” since that implies there actually was some degree of leadership. From the outside it just looks like the league was floundering…with a strategy of hoping that players would eventually tire of protesting racial injustice during NFL games.
Through the regular season NFL players continued to kneel or sit for the national anthem. Game attendance was down, as were television ratings. Sponsors have expressed concern, and many fans are offended by highly paid professional athletes who choose to protest during the few pre-game moments set aside to honor our nation and those who serve it.
Frankly, I don’t understand what is so complicated about the issue:
- NFL players are valued employees.
- They have the opportunity to earn a terrific living by working for an entertainment organization called the National Football League.
- As with any employee-employer relationships, there is work time and personal time. And what employees do on their personal time is their business (unless it violates the league’s personal conduct policy).
- But when players are in uniform, they are expected to behave in a manner that best represents their employer, the moneymaking NFL machine that pays their salary.
Tell me it’s not that simple.
If a flight attendant on Southwest Airlines begins making an anti-abortion statement during pre-flight announcements, would her employer ask her to refrain from that behavior in the future? Yes. Not only because it’s inappropriate for the setting but because it threatens customer relationships and the organization’s profitability.
Do NFL players have the right to express their beliefs, to protest police brutality and racial injustice? Of course. But when they are wearing the company uniform, and are being paid to perform in a manner that benefits their team and the league, their loyalty should be to their employer. It’s to their own benefit! On company time, players do not have the right to promote their own personal causes and risk offending a significant portion of the customer base by not standing for the national anthem.
Instead of being proactive and communicating that message to NFL players, the league opened the front door and invited in this public relations nightmare. Keep in mind, this is the same multi-billion dollar NFL that in recent years has been accused of not providing adequate medical benefits for retired players with debilitating injuries, has been blamed for tolerating spousal abuse by current players, and has been charged with ignoring (or even covering up) C.T.E. (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head). If any organization on the planet should have had a crisis PR plan ready to roll out, it is the NFL. But that wasn’t the case.
So, Schnatter roasted NFL leadership during the earnings call and guess what? Things only got worse for him. Papa John’s received a most unwelcome endorsement from the Daily Stormer, a Neo-Nazi and white supremacist website, that branded Papa John’s the “official pizza of the alt-right.” Plus, Schnatter’s public comments attacking NFL leadership were spun to characterize him as an anti-civil-rights bigot – while the Papa John’s stock price dropped another 13%.
A couple weeks after that call, Papa John’s tweeted an apology to those claiming that Schnatter’s comments were divisive. And a few weeks later, Schnatter relinquished his position as CEO of Papa John’s, another peace offering to appease the hysterical folks who are more inclined to burn down anything that doesn’t support their particular point of view.
Was Schnatter right about the league fumbling its way through the protest issue? Certainly. But that’s irrelevant. In today’s politically correct climate, it’s better to keep your head down and your yap shut, right?
Or is it?
Schnatter spoke his mind, and took plenty of arrows to the mid-section. Then he apologized. And then he stepped down as the CEO…because a group claimed his comments were divisive.
I wonder if he wouldn’t have fared better if he had doubled-down on his original position that the NFL’s lack of leadership had ruined his marketing partnership with the league. If he would have announced that he was pulling out of the NFL deal, he might have gotten more respect and more support from the stand-for-the-anthem pizza eaters across the country.
Unfortunately, there is an element of our society whose strategy is to shriek incessantly and point fingers like spoiled brats until they are successful in vilifying anyone with whom they disagree. And yes, this is the same group that preaches tolerance and inclusiveness.
Forget the civil discourse and compromise. Focus on being hysterical and disingenuous until the goals are accomplished (see Dick Durbin and his chain migration nonsense).
So how does our democracy survive if half the population can’t share their opinions without being shouted down? Maybe, like toddlers, the whiny bunch needs to be trained that rationale people won’t cave in to hysterics. Sure, those who once again pioneer common sense and defy political correctness may pay a price (maybe even in stock price). But the passive, keep-your-yap-shut alternative is no solution. On the contrary, now is the time stand tall, speak up.
And fill that pie-hole with a big slice of pepperoni.