Originally created 01/26/99

Sports network plans 'greatest athlete' tribute



BRISTOL, Conn. -- ESPN will air a 30-minute documentary honoring O.J. Simpson as one of the 50 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century, despite his reputation.

Simpson, the Heisman Trophy winner in his senior year at the University of Southern California, had an 11-year professional career. He was the first NFL player to run for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, in 1973, and finished his career with 11,236 yards rushing.

ESPN said Monday that the special, to be broadcast Friday, will take note of the allegations that Simpson killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a companion, Ronald Goldman. Although acquitted of criminal charges, Simpson was found liable for their deaths in a separate civil proceeding, a decision he is appealing.

But panelists voting on the 50 greatest athletes were asked to consider athletic prowess alone, the network said. ESPN also said nearly 60 percent of ESPN Web site users said they believed Simpson was one of the greatest athletes of the century.

Among those interviewed for the Simpson program were author George Plimpton and former NFL defensive end Deacon Jones.

"I think he was guilty and you just can't get that out of your mind," Plimpton told the program. "If he were in prison, actually, serving out his term, I think one would begin to think of him more as a football player."

Jones said Simpson's predicament should not overshadow the quality of his performance.

"Nothing he did outside the game has anything to do with his contributions to the sport, not one iota," Jones said. "Now, if you hate him over here for what he was accused of, you understand, then hate him over here, but over here you have to give him his dues."

Simpson is the second athlete to be honored in the 50-part series. Tennis great Chris Evert was first.