Brown U. Lawsuit Will Color the Future of Women's Sports GENDER EQUITY Series: Kerri Whitaker of Brown University Is Pursued by Betsy Hagmann of Yale during a Game Earlier This Month in Providence, R.I. Women Athletes at Brown Sued the School in 1992, Citing Discrimination., ROBERT HARBISON - STAFF

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Four years ago, Amy Cohen and more than a dozen other female athletes at Brown University decided they'd had it.

They were tired of working with a stretched-thin staff and doubling up on locker-room space. But the real blow came when Brown, in a university-wide downsizing move, stopped funding women's gymnastics and volleyball.

Brown had also cut men's water polo and golf, and it continued to offer women a wide array of sports. But the gymnasts and volleyball players felt abandoned. So, armed with a 1972 federal gender-equality statute, they went to court.

Before the end of the school year, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston is expected to decide the landmark case - and in the process either reaffirm or call into question federal regulations that spawned a 20-year expansion of women's sports programs in schools across the nation.

If the court decides Brown has done enough to provide sports opportunities for women, the sports expansion here and elsewhere could come to a screeching halt, maybe even begin to contract.

If, on the other hand, the court sides with the Brown women and upholds an earlier US District Court decision against the university, the spectrum of sports teams available to women, from junior high through college, is likely to grow, perhaps dramatically.

To some degree, this has already happened. Since the Brown athletes filed the suit in 1992, schools have scrambled to upgrade women's facilities and boost the number of women in their athletic departments. Colleges were spurred to action, coaches and others say, by the very thought that a wealthy and prestigious university like Brown could be accused of violating equality laws.

The case has its roots in a 1972 federal statute, Title IX of the Education Amendments. Under Title IX, the US Education Department ruled that schools receiving federal money cannot discriminate against women in any activity. At the time, most of the ensuing lawsuits centered on the need to establish more sports programs for women.

Cohen v. Brown, however, is one of the first court cases that challenges the Education Department's regulations used to measure a school's Title IX compliance.

The university says not enough women are interested in sports to validate the number of women athletes required by Title IX. A reversal of the district court, Brown argues, will let women's athletics expand naturally when there is a demand rather than artificially, by court order.

"The question of equity is, have you given each {side} what they need to succeed to the best of your ability?" says Brown attorney Beverly Ledbetter.

But the women and their supporters say that argument is the same one used to fight establishment of the first women's teams in the 1970s.

Inherently less sports-minded?

"The problem is that Brown is trying to measure something that is immeasurable," says Deborah Brake, a lawyer at the National Women's Law Center, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the women athletes. "It cannot be proven that men are inherently more interested in sports than women. Every time women have been offered opportunities, they have flooded the teams."

As Brown sees it, the number of sports it offers to women - more than twice the national average - signals its dedication to women athletes. "If the intent of Title IX is to give more opportunities to women, then we're doing that," says David Roach, Brown's athletic director and a former women's swimming coach.

But the plaintiffs' supporters argue that it doesn't matter how many slots are open to women athletes if more slots are available to men. "Brown wants to compare what it does for women to what other schools do for women," says Ms. …