The city of Jeffersonville, Ind., had plenty of reason to add John Schnatter’s name last year to its 80-year-old gymnasium. After all, he founded the Papa John’s chain right there in his hometown — and, more recently, donated $800,000 to help renovate the historic building.
However, Jeffersonville’s mayor saw to it Wednesday that Schnatter’s name was removed from Nachand Fieldhouse, even though he said that representatives of the pizza entrepreneur told him he could “expect some litigation to come my way” over the decision. Mayor Mike Moore said (via the Louisville Courier-Journal) that would be “unfortunate” but that he and other city officials didn’t “make decisions [about] something being right or wrong, based on a monetary gift.”
To Moore, removing the name was the right thing to do after Schnatter admitted Wednesday to having made offensive remarks, including use of the n-word.
Schnatter, 56, apologized for his language, and resigned from his position as Chairman of the Board at Papa John’s, as well as from the University of Louisville Board of Trustees after the local branch of the NAACP called on him to “step down … or be removed.”
Schnatter’s comments were made during a May conference call with a marketing agency and were revealed Wednesday by Forbes, which reported that he was engaged in “a role-playing exercise” designed to help him avoid damaging public-relations gaffes. Schnatter resigned as the CEO of Papa John’s in January, after he blamed his company’s disappointing sales on the NFL’s handling of protests by some of its players during the national anthem.
Pointing out in November the status of Papa John’s as a major advertiser during NFL games and corporate partner of the league, Schnatter linked his company’s earnings to the NFL’s sagging TV ratings. Schnatter, a contributor to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, himself a sharp critic of the protests, said they “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” accused the league of “poor leadership” on the issue and claimed, “The ratings are going backwards because of the controversy, and so the controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country.”
Papa John’s subsequently issued an apology for the remarks “to anyone that thought they were divisive.” The company later arranged for the agency to help “manage Schnatter’s comeback,” according to Forbes, after the ex-CEO, familiar to football fans and others from his prominent role in Papa John’s advertising campaigns, was forced by the NFL controversy to lay low.
That attempted comeback blew up in the faces of both Schnatter and the agency, Laundry Service, which canceled its contract with Papa John’s, reportedly resulting in a loss of revenue and a reduction in its staff. Schnatter was reported to have downplayed the impact of his comments on the NFL’s protests, referring to the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken in claiming that “Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s” but did not pay a major price.
Apparently trying to display his disgust with racism, Schnatter also reportedly talked about how, when he was growing up in Indiana, black people were dragged from trucks until they died. However, “multiple individuals on the call” who heard Schnatter’s comments “found them to be offensive,” a source told Forbes.
In a statement Wednesday, Schnatter said, “News reports attributing the use of inappropriate and hurtful language to me during a media training session regarding race are true. Regardless of the context, I apologize. Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.”
“Papa John’s condemns racism and any insensitive language, no matter the situation or setting,” the company said in its own statement. “Our company was built on a foundation of mutual respect and acceptance. … We take great pride in the diversity of the Papa John’s family, though diversity and inclusion is an area where we will continue to strive to do better.”
The attempts at damage control were not enough to prevent Major League Baseball from suspending its promotional partnership with the company, a “Papa Slam” deal in which grand slams triggered 40 percent price reductions of Papa John’s pizzas the following day. Yahoo Sports, which broke the news, noted that individual MLB teams were left to make their own decisions about whether to continue similar promotions with the company. And on Thursday, at least one team acted, with the Miami Marlins announcing that their club is “committed to an inclusive environment for all of our fans,” that Schnatter’s “derogatory and insensitive comments are not at all reflective of the values of our organization,” and that the Marlins were suspending their relationship with the company.
It remains to be seen if the University of Louisville moves to change the name of Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium, its 65,000-seat football facility. Schnatter personally holds those naming rights in an agreement reached with the school two decades ago, according to reports, and he could potentially make it very difficult, or at least very expensive, for Louisville to distance itself from him.
In Schnatter’s Indiana hometown, Moore said that threats of litigation aside, he hoped the $800,000 donation would not be rescinded, because it was helping so many “inner-city kids” who would be using the building not only as their school gymnasium but as an after-school “safe place.”
Claiming that Schnatter’s “derogatory” remarks caught him “by surprise,” and noting (via the News and Tribune) that he could not recall any incidents in Jefferson of black people being dragged behind trucks, the mayor said, “My hope is, even with the name down, he still wants to help those kids. I hope the money is not tied to the name.”
“This gymnasium is not only a significant historical part of the city of [Jefferson], it’s about to become the gymnasium for our new downtown elementary school,” Moore added. “I can’t have children who are walking into this elementary school to get an education to have this hanging over their heads.
“I do not want that name with these comments, you know, crossing any little child’s mind that’s walking into school every day.”
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