The issue is part of a lawsuit filed by five members of the volleyball team at Connecticut's Quinnipiac University and coach Robin Sparks last year after the school decided in a budgetary move to eliminate women's volleyball in favor of a competitive cheer squad.
Judge Stefan Underhill also will be asked to decide whether Quinnipiac improperly manipulates the size of the rosters of its other teams to get around complying with Title IX, the 1972 federal law that mandates equal opportunities for men and women in athletics.
Underhill recently agreed to make the lawsuit a class action for all current and future female athletes at Quinnipiac.
The case goes to trial in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, beginning Monday.
Linda Carpenter, a professor emerita at Brooklyn College and co-author of the book "Title IX," said the women's sports community is watching the case closely.
"These are significant issues and a significant case," Carpenter said. "It provides a case, whichever way it goes, that can work its way up the judicial food chain, and ultimately provide a precedent."
Underhill issued a temporary injunction last year that prevented the school from disbanding the volleyball team after finding the school was over-reporting the participation opportunities for its female athletes and under-reporting the opportunities for men.
Evidence showed the men's baseball and lacrosse teams, for example, would drop players before reporting data to the Department of Education and reinstate them after the reports were submitted. Conversely, the women's softball team would add players before the reporting date, knowing the additional players would not be on the team in the spring.
Quinnipiac officials and their lawyers declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said in a short statement that the school "believes that it has complied with all aspects of Title IX legislation and will continue to do so."
Members of both the cheer squad and the volleyball team either would not comment or did not return calls seeking comment. Erin Trotman, a junior on the cheer squad, said they have been told they are not allowed to discuss the case while it is pending.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs said the lawsuit is apparently a first.
"What makes this case significant is that, as far as I know, this will be the first time any court has been asked to rule whether competitive cheer is a sport for Title IX purposes," said attorney Jon Orleans, who represents the volleyball players.
An activity can be considered a sport under Title IX if it meets specific criteria. It must have coaches, practices, competitions during a defined season, and a governing organization. The activity also must have competition as its primary goal -- not merely the support of other athletic teams.
During last year's hearing, school cheer coach Mary Ann Powers defended competitive cheer as a legitimate sport, saying her team is made of athletes, most of them elite gymnasts.
School officials testified that the benefit of a competitive cheer team is more athletic opportunities for women at lower cost. Quinnipiac's cheer team cost the school about $1,250 per roster spot, the school testified last year. The team currently has 30 members. The volleyball team cost more than $6,300 per team member with 11 players in 2008-09 and a budget of more than $70,000, according to the testimony.
Even the judge recognized the competitive attributes of the cheer squad.
In issuing his injunction, Underhill said competitive cheer "although not presently an NCAA recognized sport or emerging sport, has all the necessary characteristics of a potentially valid competitive sport."
Quinnipiac and seven other schools recently formed a governing body, the National Competitive Stunts and Tumbling Association, to govern and develop competitive cheer as a sport. Previously, competitive cheerleading championships were decided by two organizations -- the National Cheerleaders Association and the Universal Cheerleading Association. Both are tied to Varsity Brands Inc., which makes cheerleading apparel and runs camps.
School officials have said any improper manipulation of the rosters has stopped. They will argue at trial that Quinnipiac's percentage of men and women athletes is now in line with the overall population at the school, one of three ways a school can show it is in compliance with Title IX. The other two are showing history of increasing sports opportunities for women or proving it has met the interest and ability of the underrepresented group.
But lawyers for the volleyball team plan to ask the judge to clarify how rosters can be counted. Women who run track at Quinnipiac, for example, are counted three times, as members of the indoor, outdoor and cross-country teams.
Quinnipiac eliminated men's indoor and outdoor track to help meet numbers for Title IX. But the plaintiffs argue all track athletes should be counted just once.
Carpenter believes a lot of schools pad their rosters to make it look like they are in compliance with Title IX.
"Truth is an important commodity, especially on a campus of higher education," she said. "I think this (case) might make other schools think twice before they manipulate their own figures."