They’re fairly typical sneakers. Air Jordan 3s, to be exact. Clean, puffy, and black with white and red trim, they don’t look terrifically grungy or gangsta, and yet when they were on the feet of one young man, they got him barred from entering Varsity Tavern last Thursday night.
When they were on the feet of another young man, his buddy, just an hour later, they carried him right on in like MJ from the foul line.
The possible difference? One of the young men was white (granted entry), the other black (denied entry).
Up until their Varsity Tavern experience, Sayed said he and his crew saw a lot of the 817’s good side.
It was spring break, and they were in from Philadelphia, where the 32-year-old had been living since leaving Fort Worth in 2017. Before relocating to Philly to start medical school, the Dallas-born/Arlington-raised first-generation Egyptian dwelled in Arlington Heights for six years. Among Sayed’s favorite local nightspots was the thronging West 7th Street corridor, especially Varsity Tavern. Sayed thought bringing his boys there would give them a true taste of Texas, Fort Worth specifically.
Sort of a mix between a dance club, a rec center, a sports bar, and a high-school locker room, Varsity offers giant Jenga, giant-screen TVs (broadcasting sports primarily), giant burgers, and giant beer-pong (played with big, bouncy balls and rubber trashcans instead of the traditional ping-pong balls and Solo cups). The aluminum bleachers ripped straight out of a gymnasium, stretching out by the small, rarely used stage, are a nice dialectical coup. The view is only of other customers. From the cozy rooftop patio, downtown Fort Worth’s patchy skyline glows to the north, and, to the west, there’s the Cultural District and all of its architectural gems, including the closest, the elegantly boxy and steely Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
In terms of alcohol sales, Varsity, occupying the sweet corner of Morton and Norwood streets in the heart of the West 7th madness, sits firmly in the heavyweight division, among some establishments two to three times its size. The sports bar rings up between $300,000 and sometimes $600,000 a month, making it one of Tarrant County’s top billers, right up there with Billy Bob’s Texas, the Omni downtown, and Bucks Cabaret. With DJs spinning an intoxicating mix of hip-hop, country, and rock and fit young women in tight or revealing clothing working the tables and bar, Varsity remains a destination for the young and well-coiffed in the Fort and beyond.
“I wanted to show [my friends] a good time,” Sayed recalled. “West 7th was the place everyone was at.”
The day started with a bang. Or a whack. Light-skinned Sayed and his buddies –– one Ghanaian, one Filipino, one Indian, and one white; a veritable walking/talking Benetton ad –– spent the day tailgating and partying at Globe Life Park for Opening Day of the Rangers’ 2018-2019 season. Everything was going smoothly, Sayed said, until he and his friends found themselves on Varsity’s doorstep.
What happened next revolved around Sayed’s friend from Ghana. Stephen, 24, was born in the States but spent several years as a child in the West African nation before returning stateside, first to the Bronx and now to Philadelphia, studying in the same medical program as Sayed. Stephen, in Sayed’s opinion, is a stylish dresser. Tall and thin, Stephen dresses to fit his stature, Sayed said, togging outfits that match his lean, athletic frame. “Nothing baggy,” Sayed said. On this night –– Thursday, March 30 –– Stephen opted to conclude his ensemble with the Jordan 3s.
“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” Stephen said via email of his rejection at Varsity. (He asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy.) “I’ve always heard about people being in similar situations, but I had never experienced something like that, so to actually experience it firsthand was a complete shock to me. I always thought I would know what to do, but when it actually happened, I had no idea what to say or how to even react. I completely shut down both mentally and physically in disbelief after it happened.”
Varsity’s dress code is not posted on its website, and the club’s Facebook page says only “casual.” The club’s lengthy dress code hangs by the front entrance. Among the prohibited items are “basketball shoes,” exactly like Air Jordan 3s.
Sayed doesn’t care. He still believes Stephen was mistreated because of his race. The Thursday night in question, incidentally, happened to be an extension of the previous Saturday evening, Sayed believed, which also happened to be an extension of Sayed’s years of patronizing Varsity Tavern since it opened in 2015.
That previous Saturday, Sayed and Stephen –– both wearing joggers, stylish and stretchy slim-fit pants that really can be dressed up or down –– approached Varsity Tavern to be greeted by a different bouncer, who let Sayed in but not Stephen. The alleged reason? No joggers allowed. (Joggers could be interpreted as “sweat pants,” which are verboten at Varsity, according to the posted dress code.)
“ ‘You just let me in, and he has the same pants on!’ ” Sayed recalled telling the bouncer. “Mine were khaki, and [Stephen’s] were black, but it’s still the same old story.”
The two friends ended up inside Varsity that night due to an open secret that Sayed alleges is known among only some regulars and that is commonplace in Dallas.
“There’s another bouncer that mans the gate,” Sayed said, meaning the Varsity entrance facing Norwood. “You give him $20 for each [dress-code] infraction, and he lets you in.”
Sayed alleges the bouncer charged him $40 for both his joggers and Stephen’s under the assumption that Sayed was also not properly dressed.
“I’m ashamed I’ve used that in the past,” Sayed said of slipping Varsity bouncers cash in return for admittance. “It just seems easier to give in to [Varsity’s] stupid demands and racist tendencies” than to cause a scene.
Sayed believes this backdoor policy –– at Varsity and at many Dallas clubs –– has “been going for years. It’s happened for so long.”
He also believes it’s unique to North Texas. “I never worry about talking my way or buying my way into a bar or club” in any other city, he said.
Having twice watched his friend denied entry into the same bar within days of each other inspired Sayed to take action, Sayed said. He devised a plan.
On that Thursday, Stephen and the white guy in the group, let’s call him Mark, switched shoes –– Mark was wearing Sperry top-siders –– and attempted to re-enter Varsity Tavern.
This time, both black Stephen, now in Sperrys, and white Mark, now in the Air Jordan 3s, were allowed in by the white bouncer.
In his hot Facebook post, Sayed goes on to say that Varsity brought his “worst nightmare to fruition. We are stereotyped as racist people here in Texas, and you guys validated that notion. Not that [it] should matter, but this guy [Stephen] is going to be a freaking doctor!”
Sayed said he’s never had a problem in the past with any other bar in the West 7th corridor –– or Fort Worth –– and that on the night of Opening Day, after what happened at Varsity, he and his buddies took their party elsewhere, specifically to nearby Texas Republic and Bar 2909. They had a great time at both places, Sayed said.
Still, Sayed continued, Stephen was not himself.
“He was so upset the rest of the night,” Sayed said. “You couldn’t cheer him up. You could see him drift away in his thoughts. It was so surreal to him.”
Posting on Facebook was the least Sayed could do, he said: “I promised Stephen that this was not going to go unpunished. … I don’t know what’s going to happen, but it will be spoken about, and it will be dealt with. I wanted to have Stephen’s back … [and] I wanted to have a conversation about [the incident] and let Varsity know that they’re being spoken about this way. I don’t think it’s a bouncer problem. I think it’s a leadership problem.”
“Outside of Varsity,” Stephen told me, “I actually had a pleasant time in Fort Worth. Everyone was so welcoming everywhere we went, and they were hospitable. So outside of that incident, my final impression of Fort Worth was GREAT.”