When we got word Papa John’s Pizza got a new (black) face, Shaquille O’Neal, the crew at The Root had a field day. “Ask Shaq about his obsession with being a cop and if he had trouble finding a cap and cane for his soft shoe routine ...,” quipped one. “The same Shaq who just said Trump deserves a fair chance?” incredulously asked another.
I was dispatched to the Four Seasons downtown on Friday to get the story, the same day the company publicly announced that O’Neal would be starring in a “triple-header”: in addition to franchising nine Papa John’s stores in Atlanta, the 47-year-old former NBA champion will appear in commercials for the company, adding a cool $8 million to his reported net worth of $400 million. Shaq will also be the first African American on Papa John’s Board of Directors. For the “king of endorsements,” this is just Shaq’s latest money move that netted the former NBA All-Star more than he made in his extraordinary NBA career.
“When I met with the new leadership of Papa John, we talked about, ‘Hey, there has to be some diversity in your leadership,’ said Shaq to The Root (an aside: Shaq is a giant. When he stood, I felt like Hagrid could be real ya’ll, except he’s from Newark and named Shaquille. Also, he has Duke vs. North Carolina in the NCAA tourney final.) “Then I said, ‘We have to create a new culture where there will always be love, respect and welcome.’ And I said I would want to help them do that.”
I mean you can’t get more spot-on than Shaq for what Papa John’s required. Perhaps some high priced consultant brought in to scrub the racial stench and falling stock prices away offered that Papa John’s needed to find a brand ambassador who checked the following boxes: black; high-profile; an athlete; beloved by all; not “controversial;” and, finally, a rapper and a law and order type of guy. Who but Shaq?
And apparently Wall Street is here for it, as Papa John’s in-the-tank stock rose more than six percent after Friday’s announcement.
Yet some find this particular deal troubling because Papa John’s has had some “racial controversy,” starting with its founder, John “Papa John” Schnatter, who made a racial gaffe so colossal (well, two, in quick succession), that he had to actually leave the company he founded. Short version (which The Root covered extensively, I think under the header “Papa John’s pizza tastes like racism”): Papa John publicly said the company was faltering because of the 2016 NFL protests; white supremacists took it on as theirs; Schnatter apologized, then dropped the n-word. In a meeting. On diversity. He then whined about being asked to leave, saying he was pushed to use the racial slur.
Schnatter stepped down as CEO in late 2017 and resigned as chairman last July.
Shaq, though, seems to be at peace with his decision to partner with Papa’s, though he noted that Schnatter’s behavior was unacceptable.
“Pizza is fun. Everybody loves pizza and pizza loves everyone,” explains Shaq.
He later added: “I’ve never been the one to never get into politics, but since I’m on the board, we’ll be talking about all things. Nobody will be excluded, everything will be included. There will be more diversity on the board, but as far as me, I’ve never wanted to be one to get into politics. I’m a police officer, I respect police officers, I respect people, but politics is not my thing.”
He continued: “Shaquille O’Neal is in the fun business. When you see this face, this is the face I want you to laugh at because when you laugh, it creates endorphins, so whatever you’re going through, once you see this face, I want you to be able just forget about it, maybe for the rest of the day.”
Schnatter will be leaving the board, “once an independent director that is mutually acceptable replaces him, CBS Market Watch reports. In addition to Shaq, Papa John’s has also brought aboard “activist” hedge fund lead Jeff Smith, who was tapped to become its chairman (note: I was happy when I read “activist,” but in this case, it is not in the Colin Kaepernick sense). Smith was formerly chairman of the board at Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden), and will ostensibly lead back the company back in-the-black (see what I did there?)
And Shaq, who said he really initially felt bad for the company’s 800 franchisees, is fine with that.
“So, I’m not a politician,” Shaq repeated for the third time. “I’m an athlete, I’m a businessman, I’m a father and I’m a community man.” And you’re a black man, I prodded, after noting that this whole thing started over the movement for black lives. “And I’m black,” said Shaq. “And these are the things I do.”