“Tajh Boyd” chicken quesadillas. A “Clowney” turkey avocado wrap. The “Sammy Watkins” Reuben.
From the first day the Daniel Island Grille opened its doors in 2008, owner Brian Mahoney has always had his tongue firmly planted in cheek when it comes to the restaurant’s menu. Nearly every menu item is named for a local or national sports celebrity.
“When we first opened up, we had a lot more play on words and puns when it comes to the menu,” Mahoney, a 1992 graduate of South Carolina, said. “Sometimes there was some hidden meaning behind the name, but it was all in good fun.”
The Long Island native, however, learned over the weekend it’s no laughing matter to the NCAA, Clemson or South Carolina.
On Sunday, Mahoney was fishing in the Wando River when he got a call from a friend about a story in The Post and Courier. Mahoney was in the news because some of his menu items — named after Clemson players Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, along with USC’s Jadeveon Clowney — had caught the attention of the NCAA, Clemson and South Carolina officials.
“I nearly fell out of the boat,” Mahoney said.
He immediately called his business partner, Thomas Dowling, who runs the day-to-day operations of the restaurant.
“Tom was like, ‘Oh yeah, I got a call from the Clemson athletic director (Dan Radakovich) last week asking me to take their names off the menu,”’ Mahoney said. “Tom said that Radakovich was on the phone with him for a while and he wasn’t going to get off the phone until he was certain the items were off the menu. Honestly, we didn’t see what the big deal was.”
As it turns out, the big deal was that the NCAA prohibits the use of student-athletes’ names or pictures without knowledge or permission.
Clemson sent an official cease-and-desist letter to Mahoney. South Carolina officials sent a similar e-mail a few days later.
“The Clemson folks seemed to be much more serious about this than South Carolina,” Mahoney said. “It just didn’t seem like this was a huge priority for South Carolina.”
The story went viral on the Internet Sunday, and Mahoney was flooded with calls from friends across the country. He could only shake his head in disbelief over the uproar he had caused.
“I had some friends of mine doing a fantasy football draft in New York call me and say they’d seen the restaurant’s logo on television,” Mahoney said.
On Monday, one could still order “Tajh Boyd” chicken quesadillas, or a “Clowney” turkey avocado wrap and the “Sammy Watkins” Reuben.
Clemson Associate Athletic Director for Compliance Services Stephanie Ellison released this statement to The Post and Courier: “The compliance office works with the University’s Office of General Counsel to send a cease and desist letter first. This allows people who may be unfamiliar with NCAA rules to correct their conduct quickly and without having to deal with formal legal action.
“When people have been given that chance and have refused to comply with the NCAA rules, then our Office of General Counsel will consider the facts and take appropriate action through the court system. The specific action is determined by our attorneys.”
The NCAA and South Carolina did not respond to requests for compliance information Monday.
Mahoney said he’s tempted to take on the NCAA and the state schools over the issue, but doesn’t want to cause any trouble for the players — though it’s extremely unlikely their eligibility would ever be in jeopardy from this sandwich flap.
“The NCAA and Clemson and South Carolina can’t tell me what to name stuff on my menu,” Mahoney said. “They have no authority over me.”
ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who also is an attorney, said Mahoney is right.
“The NCAA has no recourse against the restaurant,” Bilas said. “It’s not like they can take away his eligibility. South Carolina and Clemson sent those cease and desist letters to cover their butts, so the NCAA wouldn’t take any action against them or the players.”
However, Boyd, Watkins or Clowney can legally challenge Mahoney and force him to change the menu items, Bilas said.
“The players can hire someone, and under trademark infringement get him to stop,” Bilas said. “Tajh Boyd can always agree to let them use his name on the sandwich and that’s OK. But if the restaurant owner gave Tajh the sandwich for free, he’d be ineligible to play because the only people who get to exploit Tajh Boyd are the NCAA.”
Bilas said it would be in the best interest of Mahoney to change the names now because once the players turn professional, they can file a lawsuit against him for trademark infringement.
“And (Mahoney) would lose big,” Bilas said.
Mahoney said it won’t come to that. The restaurant is planning on altering the menu soon, which will satisfy compliance officers.
“We’re thinking about having a blackout party or Sharpie party, to black out or redact some of the letters on the menu items,” Mahoney said. “We’re going to try and make this a win-win for everyone.”
The Post and Courier’s Aaron Brenner contributed to this report.