LOS ANGELES — In the last class of his first semester as a professor at USC, Arash Markazi has a surprise for his students. As they file into Room 211 of Annenberg Hall for the final section of Markazi’s JOUR 432 class on sports commentary, a typewriter sits on a table at the front of the classroom.
Markazi, a senior writer at ESPN.com, is seated at his desk next to the typewriter and invites the students to take a closer look. One by one, 17 students leave their laptops at their desks, walk up to the antiquated machine and take a turn pecking out a sentence. It’s a new experience for all of them. The typewriter they are using is a 1946 cast-iron Remington Rand that belonged to the late Jim Murray, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Murray was a journalistic hero to Markazi, who assigned a book of Murray’s columns as the required textbook for the class. He also arranged to have Linda Murray, Jim’s widow, bring his Pulitzer certificate to the first class of the semester. In between the bookends of the Pulitzer and the typewriter was a class experience that included several professional sporting events, touring a major network studio and being visited by several high-profile members of the national media.
For students seeking careers in sports media, Markazi’s class is the beginning of a dream realized.
“My dream is to produce football games on TV,” says Rachel Kohn, a senior broadcast journalism major. “I wanted to learn what was out in the sports media field. I’m not leaving this class confused; I’m leaving with more options. There are a lot of ways to get into this field.”
For inspiration, all Kohn needs to do is look to the front of the classroom. Markazi, 36, is the poster child for sports media possibilities. A USC alum, he first broke into the field as a college student, freelancing for publications like SLAM and XXL magazines and interning at Sports Illustrated. After graduation in 2004, he took a full-time job as a writer with SI.com. In 2009, he headed to ESPN to help launch ESPNLA. He’s excelled as a writer, with long-form subjects including Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game and the 1993 Kings’ Stanley Cup run. He’s a regular contributor on L.A. radio and also does on-camera work for ESPN, usually providing informed analysis on current happenings around the L.A. sports scene.
Case in point: Markazi arrived for this 6:30 p.m. class fresh off a SportsCenter hit about USC hiring a new football coach. Dressed in a sharp navy suit, Markazi passes out graded papers and takes questions from the students on their final project: write a feature story on an approved topic and talk to at least three sources. Some of the ideas thrown around include the basketball guard who tore his labrum and missed the season; a paralyzed broadcaster of women’s college basketball; and the former football star who now works in a baseball front office.
“Arash has always been available to critique an assignment, listen to story ideas,” says JB Bryan, a senior business major with a minor in sports media studies. “He’s taken the time to help us improve as writers, even though it’s not necessarily what we all want to do.”
Markazi never planned to be a professor. In the fall of 2014, he received a call from ESPN vice president Marie Donoghue who said USC was looking for someone in L.A. sports media to teach. USC already had a JOUR 432 class on sports commentary, taught by ESPN analyst J.A. Adande, and it was so popular that they were looking to open another section.
“I was nervous because I had never taught before,” Markazi said. “So much stuff had changed with the media curriculum since I graduated, with web being so much more a part of things now.”
Adande lent a syllabus to Markazi, who went to work creating a class full of experiences the students would find useful. Markazi lined up several guest speakers in the sports media world. Those who came to talk ran the gamut, from ESPN writer Rick Reilly and NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah to sports book authors Molly Knight and Jeff Pearlman.
“I didn’t want to just pontificate about journalism and preach to them about how to do this job,” Markazi says. “I wanted to show them, here’s a variety of things that journalists think. And you can decide where you want to go from there.”
Having covered four Super Bowls, seven NBA Finals, three Stanley Cup Finals and a World Cup, Markazi also knows the value of being in the building and learning by doing. So he took advantage of USC’s campus location and lined up field trips to see the Dodgers, Clippers, Lakers and Kings in action. The students were credentialed as media and got to see exactly what it was like to cover a game. At Staples Center, Clippers coach Doc Rivers allowed students to ask two questions in the pregame and postgame press conferences, and superstars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul were gracious with their time as well.
Markazi also set up a visit to the FS1 studios in Century City so his students could see how sports television shows are produced. The field trips, which Markazi says drew 100 percent attendance, were all set up through his network of friends and colleagues in the media, which didn’t go unnoticed by his students.
“We were at the Clippers game and I saw Arash just hanging out in a corner, talking to [Clippers owner Steve] Ballmer. I took a creepy Snapchat like, When your professor is best friends with the Clippers owner,” Kohn says. “It blows my mind how many people he knows. I’ve just learned so much, watching how Arash can interact with people.”
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) November 24, 2015
More than a decade removed from sitting in classrooms himself, Markazi originally was unsure how he’d relate to today’s students. He also didn’t know how he’d keep them focused during a difficult class time slot: 6:30 to 9:50 p.m. on Mondays, in direct competition with Monday Night Football in the fall.
“The key is to engage,” Markazi says. “One of the big differences between 2016 and when I was in school are the laptops in class. So many laptops. I am hoping they are taking notes, but I could tell by the climate of the class sometimes that they most certainly were not.”
On this night, for example, the Browns are playing the Ravens on Monday Night Football. During one of the breaks during the class, Kohn, a 22-year-old Maryland native, flips open her laptop and launches the WatchESPN app on her screen. While Markazi is at the front of the room, counseling students on their final columns, Kohn erupts in the way fans do when something unbelievable happens in a game.
“What happened?” Markazi asks, as he walks over to join a crowd of students gathered around Kohn’s laptop as they watch replays of the absurd “kick-six” ending.
The students eventually get back to their seats for one final guest speaker before the class adjourns. Before everyone leaves, students line up to take pictures with their professor to post on social media. The sign of respect touches Markazi, who later reflects on the evening.
“That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career, my life,” he says. “When I was a student, when a class was done, I’d close up my book and leave. The fact that they all stayed and wanted to give me a hug or take a picture or that they were sad that the class was done? It felt really good.”