Profiles in Sports: Roger Cossack

This profile on Pepperdine professor and ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack is one in a series on individuals in the community who are involved with the world of sports.

By Seth Rubinroit / Special to The Malibu Times

As the legal analyst for ESPN, the face of Pepperdine professor Roger Cossack has become synonymous with athletes getting into trouble. When an athlete has a legal issue, Cossack can be seen on television, explaining the ramifications to ESPN’s viewers in layman’s terms.

Cossack graduated from the UCLA School of Law and became a prosecutor. He argued in front of the Supreme Court in United States v. Leon, co-hosted “Burden of Proof” on CNN with Greta Van Susteren for seven years and joined the faculty at Pepperdine University, but he is most commonly recognized for his work on ESPN’s flagship program, “SportsCenter.”

“I have done a lot of interesting things, but my son always tells me that it all pales to any appearance I do on ‘SportsCenter,’” Cossack said in a telephone interview.

How did you become a legal analyst for ESPN?

I got a call from a producer at ESPN, and he asked me if I would comment on a sports incident. I thought it would be fun to do something for ESPN, thinking that it was a one-time deal. A few more things came up, and we were discussing whether I wanted to do it full-time, and I asked them, ‘what do you need a legal analyst for? ESPN is an all-sports network.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe you haven’t read the newspaper much.’ Right about that time, the Kobe Bryant case happened, and I found myself going to Eagle, Colorado every month, covering it for ESPN.

What is the most interesting legal issue that you have covered in the sports world?

The Duke lacrosse case. It is rare when you find a prosecutor who is as out of control as that guy turned out to be. More importantly, there was such a rush to judgment that those kids were out of control and racist, and there was a general acceptance that those kids were guilty. I think we all forgot about the presumption of innocence. As a legal analyst, I have always criticized myself because I think I was slow to get off the prosecutor’s bandwagon. I got off it sooner than most people, and began to question what kind of a case he had, but I wish I had done it sooner.

Why do athletes have such a propensity toward getting into trouble with the law?

I do not know if that is a fair question. Many people get in trouble with the law; we just know more about athletes’ issues because anytime an athlete gets in trouble, we hear about it since they are celebrities.

When you are on television, how do you ensure that your message is in layman’s terms so that the entire audience can understand it?

If there is one ability I have, it is the ability to take law and explain it so that people understand it. Some people are born artists or athletes. But I have the ability to take policies and theories that are sometimes difficult to comprehend, translate them into language that people can understand, and still be interesting.

Your reporting plays a significant role in how the public views sports-related cases. How do you balance taking a stand versus giving impartial analysis?

As a legal analyst at ESPN, I am given great leeway to discuss and analyze. There are some questions that just require legal analysis, and I explain what went on without taking a position. Other times, I am required to speak out. I take what I say on TV very seriously, and I know what I say as the ESPN legal analyst has a great impact.

Have you ever met any of the athletes you have discussed on television? If so, what was their reaction to you and your public comments about them?

I have, and I will not tell you which ones, but I will tell you some have looked at me like the plague and walked away, and others have discussed what I said. Many have come up to me and said that they thought I was very fair.

You covered the O.J. Simpson case when you were at CNN. Sixteen years later, what stands out the most to you about that trial?

I think the ineptness of the prosecution stands out the most. The defense was much better than the prosecution in that case. What bothers me is that a person who I personally think was guilty walked away from it.

You are a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Pepperdine. What attracted you to the university?

Look out the window. Can you be in a more beautiful place and a more serene setting than Pepperdine? The students are terrific. My students love to tease me when they see me on television, and many of them love to point out where they think I was wrong.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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