Sports Illustrated magazine was ordered to pay at least $8.5 million to former heavyweight boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb, who sued for libel after the publication reported that he helped fix a fight and shared cocaine with the loser.

A federal court jury awarded the compensatory damages Wednesday to Cobb and will decide on punitive damages during a hearing today.

Cobb, 46, declined to comment on the case, saying "I'm sorry," when reached yesterday morning at his hotel room. Cobb's attorney, George Bochetto, said his client feels redeemed.

"Tex has been a prisoner of this article for six years and there's no better feeling in the world than to have a jury come in and set the record straight," Bochetto said.

The magazine's Nashville attorney, Eddie Wayland, did not immediately return a call yesterday but told the Tennessean, "The case is still pending. I don't think that a comment would be appropriate at this time."

Cobb sued for $50 million in actual damages and $100 million in punitive damages a year after an article headlined, "The Fix Was In," appeared in the magazine Oct. 4, 1993.

Wayland told jurors the article by senior writers William Nack and Sonja Steptoe was accurate.

Football

ITF League Gets a Start

The latest attempt at a pro football alternative to the NFL will be unveiled today, a new 12-team spring league that its sponsors say will begin in February 2000.

Among the 12 owners are singers Wayne Newton and Dionne Warwick and among the founders is Dennis Murphy, who was involved in the World Hockey Association, the American Basketball Association and other sports ventures. This one is called the International Football Federation.

The new ITF hopes to put five of its franchises in NFL cities--New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Denver. Three more will be in locations deserted by NFL teams--Los Angeles, Houston and Orange County, Calif. The other four franchises are slated for Hartford, Conn.; San Jose, Toronto and Orlando.

Running

Jones Outpaces Field

Marion Jones won the women's 200 meters in 21.91 seconds, crushing the field in a Grand Prix track meet at Olympic Stadium in Helsinki last night. But Ato Boldon of Trinidad had to fight to the finish to beat Obadele Thompson of Barbados in the men's 200, both clocking 20.14.

Jones, the world's top-ranked female sprinter, was only .1 second off her seasonal best of 21.81.

Golf

Won Tops Tiger's Mark

A high school senior toppled one of Tiger Woods's high school records in a championship golf game. Ron Won of University High School in Irvine, Calif., shot a 66 at the Southern California Golf Association members' course, beating Woods's record low score of 67 set at the Interscholastic Federation Southern California Golf Association title tournament in 1991.

Auto Racing

Altered Fuel Draws Fine

Kip McCord, crew chief for Casey Atwood, was fined $2,500 by NASCAR for using altered fuel during the MNBA Platinum 200 at Dover Downs in Delaware. The infraction was discovered following qualifying last Friday, one day before the race.

Tennis

Sampras Back on Top

Pete Sampras is about to regain the No. 1 spot in the tennis rankings.

The five-time Wimbledon champion was assured of returning to the top after a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Australian qualifier Wayne Arthurs in the third round of the Queen's grass-court tournament in London.

Losses this week by No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov at Queen's and No. 2 Patrick Rafter--in the Gerry Weber Open in Germany--cleared the way for Sampras, who began the week at No. 3.

The victory will put Sampras on top for the 268th week when rankings come out Monday. That will tie him for second place in the all-time rankings with Jimmy Connors. Ivan Lendl holds the all-time record of 270 weeks at No. 1. . . .

Second-seeded Carlos Moya beat David Prinosil, 6-4, 6-4, to reach the quarterfinals of the Gerry Weber Open, a major warmup for Wimbledon, which starts June 21.

Sixth-seeded Tommy Haas defeated Hendrik Dreekmann, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4), in an all-German match.

Cricket

South Africa Qualifies

South Africa became the first team to qualify for the 1999 Cricket World Cup semifinals after a 74-run victory in its Super Six match against New Zealand at Edgbaston.

The tournament's highest opening stand of 176 between Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten laid the foundation for South Africa's 287-5 before New Zealand reached 213-8 in reply. New Zealand must beat India at Trent Bridge today to have a chance of progressing.

Pan Am GamesLachemann to CoachMarcel Lachemann was named pitching coach for the U.S. team in the Pan Am Games, which will be a qualifying tournament for the 2000 Summer Olympics. Lachemann replaces Dave Wallace, who was named pitching coach of the New York Mets.

High Schools

Promotion at McNamara

Bernard Joseph was promoted from assistant to head football coach at McNamara High School. Joseph, a 1982 McNamara graduate, replaces Chip Armstrong, who resigned last month to become an assistant principal at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore. Joseph has worked as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech, defensive coordinator at Catholic University as well as an assistant at McNamara. McNamara was 5-5-1 last season under Armstrong. . . .

All-Liberty District basketball player Mark Davis, who late last season transferred from Lee High School in Springfield to Evangel Christian, a Dale City private school, will return to Lee for his senior year, his father said yesterday.

The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 20 points per game at Lee but was ruled ineligible late in the season because he lived outside the school district. He then enrolled at Evangel and played three games, scoring 33 points in the championship of the Mid East Region American Association of Christian Schools Tournament. He was named the event's most valuable player.

CAPTION: Pete Sampras returns a shot against Wayne Arthurs at Queen's grass-court tournament; now he'll return to No. 1 ranking.