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League's image among issues to be discussed at NFL meetings

NEW YORK -- Seven months after the New England Patriots' videotaping scandal, integrity is still a fundamental issue for NFL owners.

When owners, team officials and coaches gather for the annual spring meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. on Monday, the league's image will be a key component of several issues discussed.

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"We are determined that our game is clean and competitively fair," Ray Anderson, the league's senior vice president for football operations, said during a conference call on Wednesday. "We want integrity from top to bottom."

Much of the agenda stems from a Patriots' employee who made tapes of the New York Jets' defensive signals during the opening regular-season game. Patriots coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 for that; the team was fined $250,000 and lost its first-round draft pick.

There also will be continued discussion of labor issues. Several owners have indicated recently the league is ready to opt out next November from the agreement that was extended in March 2006.

That, however, is for the future. Integrity is now.

Three weeks ago, in a letter to the competition committee, commissioner Roger Goodell proposed strengthening enforcement procedures for next season.

While no action was taken by the committee, it agreed in principle to Goodell's proposal, which included a "whistleblower" provision that would protect anyone reporting illegal activity.

Anderson noted improved technology will allow the league to more easily monitor and detect cheating. He also wants the standard of proof to be the same used in civil cases -- preponderance of the evidence -- rather than "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" needed in criminal cases.

Fallout from the Patriots' videotaping scandal also is evident in a proposed rule change that would allow defensive players to receive signals from the sidelines through a radio in their helmets. On offense, quarterbacks already receive radio signals from the sidelines.

A similar proposal was rejected last year, getting 20 votes, two short of the 24 needed for enactment.

Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, co-chairman of the competition committee, said the impetus from the videotaping scandal could help get the additional two votes.

A third change with ethical ramifications would institute a five-to-seven-day period before the start of free agency during which agents could contact teams about prospective free agents. No signings or contact with players would be allowed, but it would avoid what most league officials concede is widespread illegal negotiation before free agency starts. Earlier this week, San Francisco forfeited its fifth-round draft choice this year for "tampering" with Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs.

McKay and Anderson, a former agent, both conceded tampering occurs.

"There's always been quite a bit of activity in the agent community," Anderson said.

"I think it will help the teams to retain their current players if they want to," McKay said. "It will allow them to know what the market is and make a competitive offer to keep a player they want to keep."

Other proposals include:

» Changing the rule on seeding in the playoffs, in part to try to avoid teams sitting regulars at the end of the season if it has already clinched its seeding. Division winners would qualify automatically, and the two winners with the best record would get first-round byes. But a wild-card team could play at home in the first round if it has a better record than the division winner it will play.

» The college option on the coin toss, allowing teams to defer taking the ball until the second half.

» Ending the forceout rule on receptions and interceptions. Currently, the play stands if a player is forced out of bounds making a catch. If changed, a player must get both feet down in bounds.

» Banning players from having hair below the name tag on their backs.

» Eliminating the five-yard "incidental facemask" penalty. Grabbing the facemask and turning it would lead to an automatic 15-yard penalty.

» Instant replay on field-goal attempts. It was proposed in part because of a game last season in which a game-tying field goal against Baltimore appeared to have hit the crossbar and bounced back on the field. It was eventually ruled to have hit the support stanchion behind the goal post and was good. The Browns went on to win in overtime.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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