Papa John’s apologized for its CEO’s rant against the NFL. Don’t buy it

Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter may need one more try.
Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter may need one more try.
Image: AP Images/Jack Dempsey. Invision for Papa John's
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Papa John’s is in apology mode, two weeks after the pizza company’s founder and CEO, John Schnatter, blamed a bad quarter on the NFL and criticized the football league’s handling of the “take a knee” demonstrations at its games.

It is not an apology worth buying.

We’ll get to why in a minute. First, some quick background: On a Nov. 1 earnings call, Schnatter said that the protests, which have divided football fans, were partly to blame for the NFL’s low ratings and thus low demand for his company’s pies. “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” he told analysts, complaining that the controversy, over whether players should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality,  “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

Now the company has apologized for those remarks, which led to calls for boycotts from supporters of the protesting players and some backhanded support for the company from at least one neo-Nazi website. Here’s what the pizza chain had to say on Twitter:

Okay, the company scores a few points for its emoji middle finger to its newest proud customers, white nationalists. But otherwise the tweets do not impress.

It’s not just the two-week lag or the “I’m-sorry-if-you-took-it-that-way” tone that makes the attempted apology feel insincere. It’s the fact that the backtracking on Schnatter’s comments doesn’t come from Schnatter himself, which has not gone unnoticed.

It’s understandable why Papa John’s the company, if not Papa John himself, would want to apologize. Since the earnings call, Papa John’s share price has fallen 13%, and though investors may be responding to the company’s sinking sales outlook, not its plunging reputation, it’s hard not to view the mea culpa as an attempt to stop the bleeding.

But an apology in a time of crisis is not a “we” situation; the CEO has to own it. (United CEO Oscar Munoz learned this the hard way following his own apology missteps earlier this year.)

And when the founder and CEO of a company can’t get behind a corporate apology brought on by his own statements, there’s no reason to buy that anything will change.

Update: Papa John’s contacted Quartz At Work to say that Schnatter was involved in the apology and approved the statement. That is a fact we should have had in our story, and it was a mistake for us not to ask the company about that beforehand. We also feel our point still stands: The CEO’s name should have been on the apology.