NEW YORK (AP) - Papa John's says its founder John Schnatter will step down as CEO next month, about two months after he publicly criticized the NFL leadership over national anthem protests by football players.

The company said Thursday that Schnatter remains chairman but is to be replaced as chief executive by Chief Operating Officer Steve Ritchie on Jan. 1.

Steve Ritchie
Steve Ritchie

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Ritchie is reported saying that he wouldn't comment specifically on whether the NFL protests or the controversy surrounding the University of Louisville athletics department, of which Papa John's has been a large donor in the past, played a role in the timing of the transition.

In that same interview, Ritchie is quoted as saying, “I want to put the focus back on our people and pizza.” He added that he was tapped to eventually succeed Schnatter in 2015, when he was named company president.

Schnatter had blamed slowing sales growth on the outcry surrounding NFL players kneeling during the national anthem. Papa John's International Inc. is an NFL sponsor and advertiser. Schnatter also said at the time that customers had a negative view of the chain's association with the NFL.

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The comments drew praise from white supremacists and the company apologized two weeks later.

Ritchie joined Papa John's in 1996 as a customer-service representative earning $6 an hour. In 2006, he became a Papa John's franchise owner and operator, then in 2010 began serving in increasing capacities of leadership in operations until being promoted to Chief Operating Officer in 2014.

Schnatter said he will continue in his role as chairman and founder, while also pursuing his personal passion for entrepreneurship, leadership development and education.