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‘I Will Never…Sell My People Out’: Shaquille O’Neal Reveals How He Got Involved with Papa John’s After Founder’s ‘N-Word’ Scandal and Being Called a ‘Sellout’

In the early spring of 2019, it was announced that former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal was adding another business venture onto his résumé, Papa John’s. However, unlike his other dealings, Shaq was not only going to be in commercials trying to convince families to eat pizza and breadsticks. In a partnership he described as a “triple threat,” the former Miami Heat player not only became a brand ambassador for the popular food chain, but he also became the company’s first Black board member and part-owner of nine franchises. 

The move came a year after Papa John’s founder John Schnatter resigned as chairman of the pizza chain’s board in 2018 after being ousted for using a racial slur during a conference call in May 2018. Forbes reported that the disgraced businessman used the N-word during a media training exercise. When asked how he would distance himself from racist groups, Schnatter reportedly complained that Colonel Sanders never faced a backlash for using the word. In a statement following the incident, Schnatter confirmed reports of his usage of “inappropriate and hurtful” language. “Regardless of the context, I apologize,” he added. 

Shaquille O’Neal speaks onstage during the 19th Annual Harold and Carole Pump Foundation Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on August 09, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Tiffany Rose/Getty Images for Harold and Carole Pump Foundation )

During a discussion regarding his estimated $400 million business empire with the financial podcast “Earn Your Leisure” with co-hosts Rashad Bilal and Troy Millings, Shaq explained how the partnership came about and how he reacted to being called a sellout. The former athlete revealed that after a previously failed business attempt, the idea of getting involved with the pizza giant surfaced. 

“The Papa John’s was a very interesting story. After the dude [Schnatter] did what he did, I was already trying to get franchises, but he kind of turned me down. So, after the dude did what he did, a friend of mine said, ‘Hey, we’re going to go buy Papa John’s,’” the television personality explained. “We go in, and a friend that I know buys Papa John’s, and he says, ‘Shaq, I want you aboard.’ I said, ‘Well, you know you messed up with my people.’ He said, ‘No, it wasn’t me. It was him.’ I said, ‘Well, you know they messed up with my peoples.’”

Still, Shaq wasn’t just going to agree easily. The former Los Angeles Lakers star had a few requirements before closing the deal. He continued, “I said if you put me on board, I got to be on the board, I got to be in charge, and I got to get some franchises. I got to help y’all understand what’s going on.”

Shaq later recalled the backlash he received after joining the company in the aftermath of Schnatter’s scandal. “At first I took a lot of flak, and I understood because a lot of time I don’t tell people what I’m doing because I don’t want it to be perceived as bragging. He do this. He do that. I’m doing business for me. It was a great thing to do,” he explained. “And listen, Papa John’s is a good brand. The guy just messed up, but he had to pay for that. He sold it to us. So, now that he sold it to us, and I’m going to make sure it’s right, slowly but surely.”

Shaq maintained, “One thing I will never do is sell my people out.” In addition, he says he never would’ve gotten involved had Schnatter still been a part of the company. “But he out. My man own it, and I own it now. So we straight.” the star added. 

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