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WASHINGTON -- The cause of women in sports -- a campaign waged often in courtrooms as well as on playing fields and in gyms -- emerged a major victor in the Supreme Court yesterday.

Without dissent, the court voted to leave intact two wide-ranging appeals court rulings aimed at bringing about parity in varsity sports for college men and women. Those decisions came in a celebrated dispute involving Brown University.

Under those rulings, a college that is not doing enough on its own to field women's teams is required by a federal law -- Title IX -- to create enough sports options for women to bring them up to a level equal to their share of the entire student body.

If doing that means the college must cut down on men's teams, that is the option they must take, according to the two decisions, both issued by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston -- the court that set the legal standard for Title IX, which has been followed by all other appeals courts.

The Supreme Court's action came close to Title IX's 25th anniversary, in June. Title IX, part of a broad 1972 law on educational equality, has contributed to a modern revolution in sports, from high schools and college campuses to the Olympics and professional leagues.

"Opportunities have skyrocketed for women since Title IX was passed," Deborah L. Brake, senior counsel of the National Women's Law Center, said yesterday.

The Supreme Court order, she added, was "important more for its symbolic value than for its legal precedent" because five federal appeals courts have already used the same approach to require equal sports opportunities for women -- a series of rulings that began with the Boston court's first decision in a Brown University case in 1993.

"A lot of holdouts have been hoping the Brown case would undo all of that," Brake added. "The Supreme Court denial puts those hopes to rest."

The appeals court's 1993 ruling in the Brown case and a second one in November also involving Brown were being tested in the Supreme Court.

Brown's appeal -- supported by a long list of colleges, including the Johns Hopkins University, and by sports and education organizations -- contended that "women's participation in athletics has increased dramatically" without the appeals court's mandate.

It argued that the effect of the appeals court's rulings was to impose unconstitutional quotas favoring women over men. It also contended that the two decisions intruded deeply into college officials' right to make educational and spending decisions, even forcing them to cut academic offerings in order to pay for women's teams.

"This case does not concern the Title IX problems of one university in Rhode Island," Brown's appeal argued. "The issues presented have wide-ranging impact on countless colleges across America."

After the court acted yesterday, Brown spokesman Mark Nickel said the university "has believed all along that our program of athletics" satisfied Title IX.

Hopkins 'by the numbers'

The decisions at issue "establish athletic department policy strictly by the numbers instead of more reliable indicators of student participation and interest," Patricia Friend, assistant general counsel for Johns Hopkins, said yesterday.

Friend said the percentage of Hopkins women playing varsity sports almost exactly matches the percentage of women in the undergraduate student body -- about 39 percent.

But, were the Boston court's ruling applied directly to Maryland campuses, an influx of female students could force Hopkins to alter its balance, and the university does not have much more money for new women's teams, Friend said.

'Proportionality' at UM

At the University of Maryland College Park, President William E. Kirwan and Athletic Director Debbie Yow have embraced the concept of "proportionality," with the percentage of women varsity athletes matching the percentage of women undergraduates.

"As an institution, we're committed to gender equity," said Susan Bayly, general counsel for the College Park campus. "We have been following the dictates of what the Brown decision says the law requires."

No explanation

The Supreme Court, as is its custom, did not explain its action in turning aside the Brown case. One factor that could have influenced the justices was that the appeals court has given Brown another chance to develop a Title IX plan of its own instead of having a federal judge draw up one for it.

Brown, by coincidence, submitted its new plan yesterday. It increases varsity positions for women by about 60, adds new varsity women's teams in crew, equestrian events and water polo, and requires no reduction of men's teams.

Another likely factor behind the justices' action was the lack of dispute among lower courts on what Title IX requires.

Case beginnings

The Brown case began in 1991 after the university, facing a financial bind, dropped four sports from varsity status: women's volleyball and gymnastics, men's golf and water polo. Brown figured this would save $77,813 a year.

Members of the two women's teams sued, leading to rulings that Brown had violated Title IX.

As recently as 1993-1994, women had 38 percent of the varsity team slots while men had 62 percent.

The university student body was 51.1 percent women, 48.9 percent men -- leaving a disparity between overall women's enrollment and varsity team participation of 13.1 percent.

Brown's three options

Under government regulations to carry out Title IX, Brown had three options: prove it was satisfying fully the sports interests of women, show a continued expansion of women's programs, or give female athletes a share of varsity sports in proportion to their share of the student body.

Brown could not meet the first two, so was faced with the final one. In its continuing legal battle, Brown has contended that this third option is not required by Title IX itself and, if it is, that it is an unconstitutional form of sex preference for women.

Pub Date: 4/22/97

Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

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