IF anyone had lingering doubts about the quality of women's collegiate sports, last weekend's basketball championship between Connecticut and Tennessee should have erased them. The athletic skills and mental toughness of both teams were obvious, as UConn fought back to take the title in the last few minutes of play.
A little less obvious, perhaps, are the legal and cultural changes enveloping not only well-publicized events like the NCAA women's basketball finals, but women's athletics in general. These changes are largely impelled by a 1972 federal law, Title IX, which, among other provisions, requires schools that get federal funds to give men and women equal athletic opportunities.
A string of recent Title IX cases have established legal guidelines for the fair treatment of female athletes. The latest ruling came a week ago, when a federal district court in Providence, R.I., found Brown University in violation of Title IX. Along with other considerations, the judge noted the disproportionate varsity slots available to men (62 percent) and women (38 percent) on a campus where the gender breakdown is 50-50.
To opponents of Title IX, this question of ''proportionality'' rings of quotas. But backers of the law point out that schools have other avenues of compliance too -- such as showing a pattern of consistently expanding opportunities for women athletes.
Such opportunities have traditionally been sparse compared with those afforded men. Athletic scholarships, for instance, have been largely a male domain, and women's coaches have been paid less. Title IX is gradually altering this. Colleges and universities are having to find room in their athletic budgets for women. Even the 800-pound gorilla of such budgets, football, may have to give ground.
The standard rationale for the old status quo was that women simply aren't very interested in sports. Legally, the courts aren't buying that argument.
Culturally, assumptions about women and athletics are changing as events like the NCAA finals not only showcase for fans the team spirit and individual talents in women's sports, but give countless girls an idea of what they can aspire to.