Louisville must cut ties with Papa John's founder John Schnatter or risk association with racism

Until Louisville can figure out how to cut ties with mega-donor and naming rights holder John Schnatter, the school will risk being associated with racism. (AP)
Until Louisville can figure out how to cut ties with mega-donor and naming rights holder John Schnatter, the school will risk being associated with racism. (AP)

Papa John’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter resigned from the Louisville board of trustees Wednesday after news broke of his use of racist language during a May conference call.

Later in the day, MLB dropped a Papa John’s promotion before Schnatter resigned from his seat as Papa John’s chairman.

Schnatter forced to apologize after reportedly using N-word

Schnatter apologized after Forbes reported that he used the N-word during a training exercise when asked about how Papa John’s would distance itself from the hate groups that attached themselves to the pizza chain after Schnatter blamed the NFL’s handling of the national anthem controversy for falling stock prices.

Papa John’s was the official pizza of the NFL at the time.

From the Forbes report:

“(KFC founder) Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s,” Schnatter said, before complaining that Sanders never faced public backlash.

The report propelled a nosedive in Papa John’s stock in addition to Schnatter’s resignation from the board.

Schnatter’s ties with Louisville run deep

Papa John’s and Schnatter have close ties with Louisville. The company’s headquarters is located in the Louisville suburb of Jeffersontown, Kentucky, and the football stadium at the university is called Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Papa John’s has donated more than $20 million to Louisville with most of the money earmarked for athletics.

This relationship leaves Louisville in a bind. The university took the first step in disassociating itself from Schnatter with his resignation from the board.

From the resignation statement by board of trustees chairman J. David Grissom:

“After speaking with John, I’m confident that his comments, while inappropriate, do not reflect his personal beliefs or values. No member of the board of trustees condones racism or insensitive language regardless of the setting. The University of Louisville embraces and celebrates diversity and is a supporter of all its students and stakeholders regardless as to their identity.

John has tendered his resignation from the University of Louisville board of trustees effective immediately. The board appreciates his 2 years of service and thanks him for his generous support for so many years.”

While Grissom attempted to soften the blow of the downfall of a longtime partner and donor, the true message of the statement cuts through.

Papa John’s downfall

Schnatter is toxic.

He’s been toxic since his stance on the NFL anthem controversy elicited the sympathy of Neo-Nazis, prompting the company to publicly disavow hate groups via Twitter.

Schnatter’s toxicity eventually led to the NFL dumping him and Papa John’s for another pizza chain. His own company pushed him out when Schnatter resigned as CEO in January.

Not even Papa John’s wants to be associated with Papa John.

Louisville risks further damage to reputation

But Louisville, despite Schnatter’s resignation from the board, is stuck with him. That football stadium is still called Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. And as long as it is, every Saturday afternoon or Thursday night game hosted on that field will create a problem.

Louisville professor and chair of the Pan-African Studies Department Ricky L. Jones put it succinctly.

Schnatter holds the cards

Schnatter and Papa John’s helped build that stadium, and, according to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, Schnatter himself owns the naming rights. Not Papa John’s.

That’s right. If Schnatter’s relationship with Papa John’s continues to deteriorate, he can change the stadium’s name to Schnatter Field if he wants. His only obligation is to cover the cost of rebranding. It’s a perk the university granted in an agreement with Schnatter more than 20 years ago thanks to the large sums of incoming cash, according to the report.

Schnatter has used his oustized influence at Louisville to bully the athletic department before. In 2016, he reportedly pulled a $1.5 million pledge and rerouted it to academics after criticizing the department’s leadership as “invisible.”

He flaunted his power over the stadium during a 2017 board meeting.

“We’re getting ready to put $60 million in a stadium,” Schnatter said. “By the way, it’s my stadium.”

So while Schnatter is out as a board member, he does not seem the type of man to tamp his ego and walk away from Louisville athletics. Not after dumping millions of dollars into the program.

But Louisville must find a way. The school and program that’s been engulfed in scandal that led to a vacated NCAA basketball championship simply can’t afford to continue to be tied to a man associated with racism.

But right now, legally, it appears that it’s up to Schnatter to do the right thing for Louisville and walk away. From his track record, the right thing does not appear to be Schnatter’s strong suit.

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