PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Four years ago, Amy Cohen and more than a dozen other female athletes at Brown University decided they'd had it.
They were tired of working with a stretched-thin staff and doubling up on locker-room space. But the real blow came when Brown, in a university-wide downsizing move, stopped funding women's gymnastics and volleyball.
Brown had also cut men's water polo and golf, and it continued to offer women a wide array of sports. But the gymnasts and volleyball players felt abandoned. So, armed with a 1972 federal gender-equality statute, they went to court.
Before the end of the school year, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston is expected to decide the landmark case - and in the process either reaffirm or call into question federal regulations that spawned a 20-year expansion of women's sports programs in schools across the nation.
If the court decides Brown has done enough to provide sports opportunities for women, the sports expansion here and elsewhere could come to a screeching halt, maybe even begin to contract.
If, on the other hand, the court sides with the Brown women and upholds an earlier US District Court decision against the university, the spectrum of sports teams available to women, from junior high through college, is likely to grow, perhaps dramatically.
To some degree, this has already happened. Since the Brown athletes filed the suit in 1992, schools have scrambled to upgrade women's facilities and boost the number of women in their athletic departments. Colleges were spurred to action, coaches and others say, by the very thought that a wealthy and prestigious university like Brown could be accused of violating equality laws.
The case has its roots in a 1972 federal statute, Title IX of the Education Amendments. Under Title IX, the US Education Department ruled that schools receiving federal money cannot discriminate against women in any activity. At the time, most of the ensuing lawsuits centered on the need to establish more sports programs for women.
Cohen v. Brown, however, is one of the first court cases that challenges the Education Department's regulations used to measure a school's Title IX compliance.
The university says not enough women are interested in sports to validate the number of women athletes required by Title IX. A reversal of the district court, Brown argues, will let women's athletics expand naturally when there is a demand rather than artificially, by court order.
"The question of equity is, have you given each [side] what they need to succeed to the best of your ability?" says Brown attorney Beverly Ledbetter.
But the women and their supporters say that argument is the same one used to fight establishment of the first women's teams in the 1970s.
Inherently less sports-minded?
"The problem is that Brown is trying to measure something that is immeasurable," says Deborah Brake, a lawyer at the National Women's Law Center, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the women athletes. "It cannot be proven that men are inherently more interested in sports than women. Every time women have been offered opportunities, they have flooded the teams."
As Brown sees it, the number of sports it offers to women - more than twice the national average - signals its dedication to women athletes. "If the intent of Title IX is to give more opportunities to women, then we're doing that," says David Roach, Brown's athletic director and a former women's swimming coach.
But the plaintiffs' supporters argue that it doesn't matter how many slots are open to women athletes if more slots are available to men. "Brown wants to compare what it does for women to what other schools do for women," says Ms. Brake. "What Title IX mandates is a comparison between what Brown does for women and what Brown does for men."
At the heart of this case are reams of percentages and proportions. Early in the district court trial, the two sides reached a settlement on the equality of equipment, facilities, recruiting efforts, and other basics. What was left was a showdown over the test used by the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights to determine Title IX compliance.
The Title IX test has three parts. Are the numbers of men and women participating in the school's sports teams "substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments"? Does the school have a history of continually expanding its athletic program for the underrepresented sex? And are all the sports interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex being met?
Using 'arbitrary' yardstick
Lynette Labinger, the plaintiffs' head attorney, says the fact that there were Brown athletes willing to sue the university demonstrates that women's interests and abilities were not being met. She says the school has not expanded its women's program since its inception in the '70s. As for proportionality, Brown is 51 percent female, but women were only 38 percent of Brown's athletes when the case was filed.
Brown says enrollment is an arbitrary way to calculate the number of women athletes at a school. The university also entered reams of data as evidence that high school students applying to Brown and already-enrolled Brown women are not interested in participating in sports in proportion to their numbers.
Among Brown's Revolutionary-era brick buildings and closely cropped playing fields, women athletes are still torn over the lawsuit. Most speak highly of their university, but they also cheer the efforts of the women who challenged it.
"I value what those kids have stood up to do," says Carolan Norris, head coach for women's lacrosse, who has worked at Brown for the past 13 years. "I've been in the trenches as far as having been directly involved with some of the types of inequalities they're fighting."
CHRONOLOGY OF SPORTS EQUALITY
1900: Women first compete in the Olympics, in Paris.
1914: The American Olympic Committee formally opposes women's Olympic participation except in floor exercises.
1920: Swimmers are the first US women athletes to win full Olympic status.
1932: Mildred Didrikson wins three track-and-field medals at the Los Angeles Games. As "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, she becomes a celebrated golfer.
1972: The United States Congress passes Title IX, outlawing sex discrimination by all schools receiving federal funds. The law took effect in 1975.
Feb. 28, 1984: The US Supreme Court narrows Title IX: Only programs receiving direct federal aid come under the law. In response, Congress passes a law in 1988 that restores Title IX's breadth by prohibiting sex discrimination throughout educational institutions receiving federal aid.
1987: Washington State's supreme court rules that Washington State University is treating its women athletes unfairly. In another high-profile suit the following year, Temple University in Philadelphia increases women's sports programs.
1992: Women athletes at Brown University file suit.
Feb. 26, 1992: In a major boost to Title IX, the Supreme Court permits students to sue schools for monetary damages for sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.
December 1995: The US Education Department says that colleges and universities must issue yearly reports on spending for men's and women's athletics, starting this October.