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OWNERS GIVE APPROVAL TO LABOR PEACE THROUGH 2004

Labor peace is at hand, the commissioner gets a new contract and the league promises to get tougher on lawlessness.

Those were some of the highlights Monday as the National Football League owners began their annual meetings. But the annual debate over instant replay awaits -- probably until late today or Wednesday.

The owners approved a new labor contract with the players association through 2004. The contract extension agreed upon last month was approved twice this weekend, first by the executive board of the NFL Players Association, meeting in Maui, and on Sunday by the Management Council executive committee. The players are expected to ratify it, also.

Among other things, it gradually increases the amount of money allocated to the players, from the current 62 percent of total gross revenues to 64 percent. The approval also means the new television contract, which can be renegotiated after five years, is likely to be extended to eight years, bringing in close to $18 billion.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was rewarded for negotiating the new multibillion-dollar television deal with a new contract that doubles his salary to 5 million and extends his tenure through 2005.

Tagliabue, 57, has been commissioner since 1989, when Pete Rozelle stepped down. Since he took office, the league's television revenue has increased from an average of around $16.7 million a year to an average of $73 million -- the result of the new contract agreed to with the networks.

The league now threatens suspensions for players convicted of assault, spousal abuse or weapons possession.

"The object is to deter misconduct," Tagliabue said.

The NFL's policy, sending players to counseling if they are convicted of crimes, has been in place since last August. But starting July 1, players will be subject to fines, suspensions or both. And teams will be allowed to terminate player contracts should a situation arise such as the one in which Latrell Sprewell choked Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo.

"An NFL employee who threatens violent criminal activity against co-workers shall be subject to discipline, including termination of employment," reads a letter sent to the 30 teams.

Pats challenge Martin contract

ORLANDO, Fla. -- New England asked the NFL to void a provision of the New York Jets' offer sheet to Curtis Martin that prohibits a team from declaring the running back a franchise player.

The request is the latest flurry in a two-year battle between the teams that began when the Jets signed coach Bill Parcells away from the Patriots after the 1996 season. Tagliabue interceded and the teams finally agreed that the Jets would send four draft picks, including next year's No. 1, to the Patriots.

Martin, a restricted free agent, signed the offer sheet last Friday, giving the Patriots until this Friday to match. The appeal to the Management Council might set back that process.

The offer gives Martin the option of $36 million over six years or $4 million for one year. If he accepts the one-year option, he could not be declared a franchise player and would then become an unprotected free agent.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft indicated Sunday he was unlikely to re-sign Martin, citing the running back's recurrent injuries the second half of last season. But Monday he said he was appealing as illegal under the collective bargaining agreement the clause that would not allow Martin to be made a franchise player.

Around the league

MINNEAPOLIS -- Ray Scott, whose booming, baritone voice brought to life on radio and TV the Vince Lombardi Packers and numerous other football and baseball teams, died Monday at a Minneapolis hospital after a long illness. He was 78.

"A voice that resonated," said Lee Remmel, director of public relations with the Green Bay Packers. "Everything he said sounded like it was chiseled in stone."

Scott announced Packers games from 1956-67, and was paired with a young Pat Summerall as CBS' No. 1 NFL team after the NFL merged with the American Football League.

Around the league

Reggie White's agent says it's a mistake to assume he is heading for retirement just because he is auditioning for a studio analyst's job at CBS. Agent Jimmy Sexton said White, 36, hasn't decided whether he'll return to the Green Bay Packers next season and probably won't make that decision for at least another month. . . . Sean Gilbert, who sat out last season in a money dispute with the Washington Redskins, was denied in his bid to become a free agent. Special master Jack Friedenthal ruled Gilbert must remain the designated franchise player for the Redskins, who now will try to trade the defensive tackle for at least a first-round pick in next month's draft. . . . The Raiders traded former first-round draft pick Rob Fredrickson to Detroit for the Lions' fourth-round selection in April's draft, according to the Contra Costa Times. Frederickson, who was moved to clear room under the salary cap, was the 22nd pick in the 1994 draft.

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