(Bloomberg) -- Papa John’s International Inc. apologized for making “divisive” comments after Chief Executive Officer John Schnatter blamed the NFL’s national-anthem controversy for hurting its sales.
Schnatter had railed against the National Football League on a Nov. 1 conference call, criticizing its leadership for mishandling a flap involving players taking a knee during the anthem.
The company, a top NFL sponsor, said in a series of tweets on Tuesday that it didn’t intend to be polarizing with the remarks.
“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,” the pizza chain said on Twitter. “We believe in the right to protest inequality and support the players’ movement to create a new platform for change. We also believe together, as Americans, we should honor our anthem. There is a way to do both.”
The company also spoke out against neo-Nazis, using a middle-finger emoji to refer to “those guys.”
“We will work with the players and league to find a positive way forward,” the company said. “Open to ideas from all. Except neo-Nazis.”
Papa John’s earlier remarks prompted white supremacists to endorse the chain as their go-to source of pizza -- an idea the company rejected.
Peter Collins, a spokesman for the Louisville, Kentucky-based company, said Papa John’s posted the tweets because “it became obvious over the last week people didn’t understand our position.”
The pizza chain waded into the simmering NFL controversy after posting disappointing North American sales for the third quarter. Schnatter knocked the leadership of commissioner Roger Goodell, saying that his brand had been harmed by its association with the league. The company also indicated that it had shifted some advertising spending away from the NFL and was re-evaluating its sponsorship.
Schnatter has appeared frequently in advertisements during NFL games, including alongside star quarterback Peyton Manning, a franchisee of the chain’s restaurants in Colorado. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is waging a battle to hold up Goodell’s contract extension, has a stake in a company that owns Papa John’s locations in Texas and has also appeared in ads for the pizza brand.
Back in 2014, when Papa John’s posted a nearly 10 percent gain in North American same-store sales, the company credited its close relationship with the NFL and Manning for driving its business in the U.S.
NFL players began kneeling during the national anthem more than a year ago -- starting with a protest against racial inequality and police brutality by Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. The action spread across the NFL and got new life after President Donald Trump began scolding the players.
Some NFL critics have said that the league should force players to stand for the anthem.
“This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” Schnatter said on the call earlier this month. “Like many sponsors, we’re in touch with the NFL. Once the issue is resolved, we’re optimistic the NFL’s best years are ahead.”
But the comments were misunderstood, Collins said on Tuesday. And the company erred in not clarifying its position right away, he said.
“We should have followed our gut from the beginning but followed advice not to speak up,” he said. “It’s time we are clear.”
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