Five members of the Quinnipiac University women's volleyball team, and the team's coach, have sued the school for dismantling the team to use the money for a cheerleading squad.
The players argue that cheerleading does not meet federally defined standards for a "sport" under Title IX, the groundbreaking civil rights law that requires schools to allocate resources equally to men's and women's sports teams.
The judge will also determine whether the university doctored its team rosters, undercounting men and overcounting women, in an effort to skirt Title IX requirements.
"The outcome of this case could have a chilling effect on women's athletics programs if cheerleading is deemed a sport," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota and a Title IX expert unaffiliated with the case.
"No one wants to denigrate cheerleading, but should it be considered sport at the expense of legitimate women's competitive team sports? It's a question of equality," Kane said. "How would people react if the school cut a men's sport like baseball or lacrosse and used those funds for a male cheerleading squad?"
The women volleyball players say a men's team would never lose funding in favor of cheerleading and the players are the subjects of sex discrimination.
"The Student Plaintiffs allege that Defendant's ongoing sex discrimination in the operation of its varsity athletic program violates Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972," the students said in their lawsuit.
Though Quinnipiac, located in Hamden, Conn. and known more for its political polling than its athletics programs, is a private school, it receives some federal funding and is therefore subject to Title IX requirements.
"Because QU receives federal financial assistance, its athletic program is subject to Title IX and QU must comply with its requirements," the volleyball players said in their suit.
The school says cheerleading is a competitive, athletic activity that creates more opportunities for women than volleyball. It says it has adequately complied with the law.
"The university believes that it has complied with all aspects of Title IX legislation and will continue to do so. Given that this is a matter awaiting adjudication, we will not comment further," said Lynn Bushnell, vice president for public affairs, in a statement.
The lawyer for the players said he "can't comment while the trial is on" but previously told the Associated Press that the trial was the first of its kind in the country.
"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.
In order to be considered a sport under Title IX, an activity must meet certain criteria, said Neena Chaudhry, senior council at the National Women's Law Center.