Papa John's founder John Schnatter criticized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday for the lingering controversy of player protests during the national anthem and blamed the league for declining sales of his pizza.
Schnatter expressed his disappointment on a conference call along with other executives from Papa John's, the official pizza company of the NFL which also includes a deal with 23 individual teams.
"The NFL has hurt us," said Schnatter, who serves as the pizza chain's chairman and CEO. "We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this."
NFL owners and executives have been scrambling to determine the best response to players kneeling during the national anthem this season, a movement started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to denounce police brutality against African-Americans, social injustice and racial inequality. A number of players followed Kaepernick's lead by taking a knee during the anthem last year and this season.
The demonstrations sparked some to call for a boycott of NFL games and raised concerns among league sponsors as television ratings declined this season.
Papa John's executives said during the conference call with the media that the company pulled much of its NFL television advertising and that the league responded by giving the company additional future spots.
"Good or bad, leadership starts at the top and this is an example of poor leadership," Schnatter said in prepared remarks without naming Goodell. "This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago. 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."
Schnatter appears frequently in advertisements during NFL games, including alongside former star quarterback Peyton Manning, who is a franchisee owner of restaurants in Colorado.
"The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country," Schnatter said.
Papa John's president and chief operating officer Steve Ritchie said the NFL deal was the primary reason behind the decline in sales.
"We expect it to persist unless a solution is put in place," Ritchie said.
President Donald Trump has continued his criticism of the NFL following the owners meeting with players on Oct. 17 to discuss the ongoing national anthem protests.
NFL players who have demonstrated during the national anthem have said they are protesting racial inequality, but not the flag or the anthem itself.
All but 10 Houston Texans players kneeled and linked arms during the national anthem before Sunday's game against the Seattle Seahawks in response to team owner Bob McNair's recent "inmates running the prison" comment.