A federal judge in Michigan has ruled that colleges and public schools are not required to provide equal athletic programs for men and women if those programs do not receive direct financial support from the federal government.

If upheld on appeal, the decision would be a major setback for Title IX, the federal law that has been widely interpreted as mandating equal opportunity for men and women in intercollegiate and interscholastic sports.

The decision, handed down Monday but made public for the first time yesterday, stemmed from a 1980 lawsuit against the public schools in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, one of the major powers in men's intercollegiate athletics.

U.S. District Judge Charles W. Joiner ruled that "the reach of Title IX extends only to those educational programs or activities which receive direct federal financial assistance."

Joiner's ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Arthur Othen, who demanded that a women's golf team be started at Ann Arbor's Pioneer High School.

While the case involved only high school athletics, affirmation at the appellate level would be a major victory for the nation's major collegiate superpowers, who have long argued that their programs are self-supporting through ticket sales and contributions and therefore should not be subject to Title IX.

Even without the appellate imprimatur, the decision has the potential of dealing a serious psychological setback to women's sports, it was generally agreed by those connected with women's athletics.

"I think the ramifications will be disastrous," said chuck Guerrier, director of the Women's Law Fund in Cleveland and author of a recent book on Title IX.

"A lot of school boards will read this decision and say, 'Great! Now we don't have to offer anything in women's athletics if we don't want to.' It gives them a legal justification to refuse to be responsive to the needs of women."

Margot Polivy, lawyer for the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), agreed that the decision could have an impact. But she added, "Before it can mean anything significant, it would have to go to an appeals court. If it stands, it's important."

"I'd like to meet that judge and shake his hand," said Jim Kehoe, retiring director of athletics at the University of Maryland and a longtime proponent of the argument that college athletic programs that do not receive federal funds should be free of federal regulation.

"Christine Grant, immediate past president of the AIAW and director of women's athletics at the University of Iowa, called the ruling "a very significant event.

"The people in women's athletics see this decision as being of crucial importance to their coaches and their programs. Since we have conflicting opinions on the exact meaning of Title IX, it's important that we have a Supreme Court decision on this matter."

Polivy said the underlying theory in Joiner's ruling seems to be "that if you don't receive direct federal funding, then you're not covered by Title IX."

In handling down his ruling, Joiner said the original intent of Congress regarding sex discrimination and Title IX of the 1972 Education Act had been misinterpreted by the Department of Health and Human Services.

That act states that no one shall discriminate on the basis of sex in operating any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

In Ann Arbor, Don Canham, athletic director at the University of Michigan, called the decision a landmark.

But Othen's lawyer, Jean L. King, disagreed with Canham."I don't think you call a decision at the district level 'landmark.' It's a first, and it's of great concern to a lot of people. It is a matter of interpreting what Congress intended.