The National Football League yesterday threw the book -- the rule book -- at critics of its decision to hand fines to members of the Cincinnati Sag Socks for sloppy dress.

Citing regulations designed to emphasize safety, professionalism and, yes, for cosmetic considerations, a spokesman for the NFL noted that rules on neat uniforms have been in force for "five or six years," and it was the clubs themselves that instructed the league last year to enforce compliance.

Fourteen teams have been fined, some more than once, including the Bengals.

Mike Brown, assistant general manager of the Cincinnati club, said, "An observer for the NFL at two different games saw seven or eight players' stockings sagged below the knee in hot weather and the club was fined $750. Our players had been told that such fines would be passed on to the individual violators."

The league spokesmand said the NFL fines the clubs rather than players. But if it is a club's policy to pass the fines to the athletes, the maximum fine for an individual is $100. The money is donated at the end of the season to the Brian Piccolo cancer research fund. Piccolo was running back with the Chicago Bears who died of the disease.

Redskin place-kicker Mark Moseley also has made a $100 "contribution" to the Piccolo fund after he was discovered to have a hole in his sock during the Redskin-Giant game two weeks ago.

"The cameras were focusing on my kicking leg," Moseley said, "and one of the announcers, I think it was Tom Brokshier, says, 'Look at Moseley's sock; he's got a hole in it.' So got fined. Next time I see Brookshier, he's taking me to dinner. Either that or he can buy me $100 worth of socks."

Don Weiss, the NFL's executive director, said of those claiming the fines were for frivolous violations, "Part of the same group are the ones who scream about safety." He cited a case in which a shoulder pad not properly secured by an altered jersey resulted in a tackler compressing an opponent's cheekbone.

He said the practice of some players cutting their football pants above the knee exposes that vulnerable joint to injury. Some players also sit on their helmets on the sideline, weakening the structure designed to provide maximum protection from blows to the head.

As to the concern about socks, he said, "Our dress code may seem like nit-picking, but we are interested in the player's professionalism. We don't want them to look rag-tag. Look up the word 'uniform' and it means just that. w

"We had an incident two years ago when several players showed up in the bench area on the sideline wearing baseball caps promoting a commercial product. In one instance, it was for a prominent brewery. The players were told, 'You will get on TV and get us a plug.' I don't know if they got paid. A lot of young people watch football and emulate what they see."

Weiss said all clubs should have a life-size poster issue by the NFL displayed in locker rooms illustrating proper and mandatory equipment. He noted that, "For several years, college players cut their pants four to five inches above the knee, like Bermuda shorts; cut off jerseys just below the shoulder pads, exposing midriffs, and alatered jersey sleeves to the extent that they couldn't hold shoulder pads in place. A loose pad can become a weapon.

"Tearaway jerseys resulted in shoulder pads flapping loose. A player could be hurt from accidentlally being grabbed from behind by an unseen opponent.

"The main focus of our rules is on safety. Some players like to remove pads because they think it will make them faster. We stipulated that players must not significantly cut away or significantly change the general appearance of the uniform, including the helmet; that the chin strap be fastened and shoulder, hip, thigh, and knee pads and stockings be worn.

"Illegal items include basketball knee pads not covered by the uniform and hard-surface extensions of shoulder pads sometimes worn by players with upper arm injuries. If game officials spot violations they will send the player out of the game until they are corrected.

"If a player uses tape on the top of his stocking or on his shoes, it must be transparent or the same color as the stocking or shoe. The stocking must cover the lower leg and meet the pants below; that's to encourage wearing knee pads. The color or design of the stockings must not be covered by another stocking or white sweat sock, resulting in the so-called 'high whites.'

"The jersey must be tucked in. Tearaway jerseys are prohibited. Only club-issued attire may be worn on the field and bench area."

Mike Brown, also the legal counsel for the Bengals, said of the fines: "We understand and agree on the purpose of the dress code, but it's getting overdone and officious.

"That's why our players took exception; they think its picayune. They paid their fines and carped about it. It's like holding; it could be called on every play. We could cure this if the guy who thinks it is a good idea came here to explain face-to-face to the players paying the fines."