A group representing female athletes asserted Tuesday it would be unthinkable to retreat on a 31-year-old law designed to ensure gender equity in educational institutions.

"To suggest that it's OK for a federal law to allow women to be treated in a manner that is inferior to men is unfathomable in this day and age," said Donna Lopiano, executive director of Women's Sports Foundation.

Lopiano argued her case -- as did representatives of organizations with contrary views -- before an Education Department panel that will soon recommend changes to the law known as Title IX.

The department 15-member Commission on Opportunity in Athletics will debate and vote on as many as 24 competing recommendations during public meetings Wednesday and Thursday. It must submit a final report to Education Secretary Rod Paige by Jan. 31.

The commissioners appear to be leaning toward recommending a less restrictive interpretation of the law's proportionality standards -- a move that sits well with supporters of a Title IX lawsuit filed by the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

The lawsuit claims that a "proportionality" rule that is a part of Title IX has led to the elimination of hundreds of men's sports team.

Opponents of the existing rule stemming from that 1972 law say that many universities have struggled to comply. The standard says the male-female athlete ratio at such institutions must be "substantially proportionate" to the male-female enrollment ratio.

"It's clear that proportionality just doesn't work," said Eric Pearson of the College Sports Council, the lead plaintiff. "It's created a quota system that was never intended when Title IX was originally created."

Commissioner Julie Foudy, a member of U.S. national women's soccer team, said she feels the majority of her fellow commissioners want to tinker with proportionality.

She said she is especially concerned about a proposal by University of Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow, which would allow schools to have a 50-50 split of male and female athletes regardless of the makeup of the student body -- with a leeway of 5 to 7 percentage points.

"That scares me," Foudy said. "The reality is that the universities are going to go down the path of least resistance, which would be 43 percent."

A member of the commissioner, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday, said the "directions they are moving toward" include a less restrictive interpretation of the law's proportionality test. It also is expected to call for new surveys to gauge sports interest among student bodies.

"The majority seem to be in favor of some form of change," the commissioner said.

Title IX has had a dramatic impact in the American sports culture over three decades, exponentially increasing female participation in sports in high schools and colleges.

Yet critics say the law has forced schools to cut men's sports in recent years.

Paige formed the commission last year in response to the lawsuit, which is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington.

Title IX advocates argue that men's teams are often cut because of overspending on high-profile sports such as football and men's basketball.

One of Foudy's recommendations would have President Bush and Paige use their offices as "bully pulpits" to encourage schools to stop the so-called "arms race" of spiraling spending on football and basketball facilities and coaches.