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Papa John’s is no longer the official pizza of the NFL.

CEO Steve Ritchie said on the company’s earnings conference call that the league and the company mutually decided it was in their best interests for Papa John’s, which became the official pizza of the league in 2010, to give up the designation.

The brand is the first NFL sponsor to leave in the midst of its deal. The company said on the call that there was no additional cost for undoing the deal.

“The NFL and Papa John’s have made a mutual decision to shift from their official league sponsorship to a focus on partnerships with 22 local NFL teams, presence in broadcast and digital media, and key personalities in the sport,” the league and company said in a joint statement.

The company will continue to invest in the NFL through its local-market deals with 22 teams. The company will no longer have presence at the league’s big events, including the draft and the Super Bowl, which will be given to the new pizza sponsor. The league is expected to have a replacement before the 2018 season begins.

It was nearly four months ago that Papa John’s founder John Schnatter, then also the CEO, said players who staged protests during the national anthem hurt business. The company pulled the NFL shield off its commercials during game broadcasts and took the shield off its pizza boxes.

“We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this,” Schnatter said at the time.

Twelve days later, after the company’s stock had dropped 12 percent, Schnatter apologized for his comments.

Schnatter, who was the face of the brand, was later replaced as CEO on Jan. 1. The company’s chief financial officer, Lance Tucker, will leave after this week to become CFO at Jack in the Box.

Sales for Papa John’s were down 3.9 percent across the country from October through December versus the same time period a year before, the company announced Tuesday, due to promotions that didn’t pan out and negative consumer perception. The company had positive comparative sales for the 14th consecutive year, narrowly accomplishing the mark in 2017 by growing 0.1 percent.

Shares were down 7 percent in after-hours trading as of 5:09 p.m. ET.

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Houston Texans release running back Duke Johnson, source says

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The Houston Texans have released running back Duke Johnson, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.

The Texans acquired Johnson from the Cleveland Browns during training camp in 2019 for a third-round pick.

In 11 games for the Texans last season, Johnson rushed for 235 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries. The pass-catching running back had a career-low 28 receptions for 249 yards and a touchdown.

Johnson backed up Carlos Hyde in 2019 and David Johnson in 2020. During the 2020 season, he started in place of David Johnson when the starter missed time due to a concussion and spending a week on the COVID-19 list.

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NFL’s minority hiring rate for open jobs nearly doubled

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The number of minority hires for open positions in the NFL nearly doubled to 34.6% in 2021.

According to the league’s demographics study obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the minority hirings included: three general managers, two head coaches, three offensive coordinators, six defensive coordinators, four special teams coordinators, three quarterbacks coaches.

The minority hiring rate was 18.8% in 2020. Interview requests for minority candidates increased to 47% from 22% in 2020.

Twelve of the 28 candidates interviewed for head coaching positions were minorities. David Culley (Texans) and Robert Saleh (Jets) were hired. Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was passed over despite receiving an interview request from each of the seven teams looking for a new head coach.

The data shows minority head coaches have been given second opportunities at a higher rate than white coaches. From 2000 to present, eight of 21 fired minority coaches (38.1%) got another head coaching job. Of the 115 fired white coaches, 22 (19.1%) got a second chance.

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New York Giants’ Nate Solder intends to play in 2021 after opting out last season

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants offensive tackle Nate Solder intends to play in 2021 as long as the situation is right, he told ESPN in a phone conversation this week.

Solder, who opted out this past season because of concerns for his family with COVID-19, has yet to have that conversation with the team about his future. He was considered a high-risk opt-out and his contract tolled.

He is scheduled to make $10 million in 2021 while costing $16.5 million against the salary cap this upcoming season.

The Giants haven’t been in a rush to make any moves with the new league year still almost three weeks away. Like everybody else, they’re waiting to see the official salary cap number for the 2021 season. Then they’re expected to meet with the veteran tackle.

Solder, 32, was the Giants’ starting left tackle in 2018 and ’19 after signing a lucrative free-agent contract. He had spent the previous seven years of his career with the New England Patriots, where he won a pair of Super Bowls.

The decision to opt out last season centered around Solder’s family. His oldest son Hudson has battled cancer. So has Nate. Solder and his wife Lexi also had a newborn.

Solder had said late last year on the Sports Spectrum podcast with former NFL quarterback Brock Huard that if he had another opportunity to play, he would probably take it. He also noted that he was still working out, but hadn’t prioritized his conditioning and weight lifting like he would during a normal football season.

The Giants now have a decision to make if they are going to move forward with Solder. They would save $6 million this season against the salary cap if he’s released, and $10 million if they made it a post-June 1 cut.

New York drafted a pair of tackles in last year’s draft, including Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick out of Georgia. Thomas started at left tackle and, despite early struggles, got better as the season progressed.

Third-round pick Matt Peart is expected to compete for the starting right tackle spot this year. Cameron Fleming, who started last season, is a free agent.

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