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15-year-old Olivia Moultrie sues NWSL to be allowed to play pro soccer

Moultrie is asking the court to let her succeed or fail as a pro without age restriction

OL Reign v Portland Thorns FC Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

15-year-old Olivia Moultrie has sued the National Women’s Soccer League in a bid to be allowed to play professional women’s soccer. Through her father, she brought a complaint in Oregon district court asking for an injunction against the NWSL to allow her to immediately be allowed to sign with a club, should any club want to sign her.

The argument laid out by her lawyers is that NWSL’s rule prohibiting anyone under the age of 18 from signing a contract with a club is a violation of the Sherman Act, which deals with antitrust laws. Since NWSL is the only pro women’s league in the US, and FIFA rules prohibit female players under 18 from playing overseas, there is nowhere for her to play pro soccer, which limits her career and earning opportunities.

According to the court filing, Moultrie contacted the league several times “in or about 2019” to request she be allowed to play and the was denied by the league. When her lawyers suggested NWSL’s age rule was a violation of the Sherman Act, they once again turned her down, claiming that they were a “‘single entity’ that cannot conspire with itself for antitrust purposes.” They also said that when she signed with Nike and moved to Portland to pursue a pro career in February of 2019, neither she nor her agent were aware of the league’s age rule or any other minimum age restriction. This was a year after the Portland Thorns had signed Ellie Carpenter and had to wait until she turned 18 to begin playing in 2018.

The filing says that NWSL has not provided any evidence about when, why, or how the age rule came to be. Courts have overturned age limits in other sports leagues under the Sherman Act; the filing cites the classic case Haywood v NBA, in which the Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling allowing Sherman Haywood to play for the Seattle SuperSonics despite not being four years out of high school, opening the door for other high school graduates to be able to play in the NBA without completing four years of college first. The only way for a league to have an age limit is if a player union agrees to it in a collective bargaining agreement with the league; currently the NWSL Players Association is entering their first ever CBA negotiations with the league. Given how long CBA negotiations usually last, there’s reason to believe that the NWSLPA bargaining will not conclude in time for Moultrie to be able to play the 2021 regular season.

As Moultrie’s lawyers’ argument goes, the senior US women’s national team has no age limit (see: Mal Pugh and Heather O’Reilly debuting before the age of 18), but she cannot play in NWSL, which is the primary league where WNT players train and play. They state, “She is being deprived not only of a professional career, but of the chance to further hone her skills in preparation for a National Team tryout.” Moultrie already practices and scrimmages with the Thorns and the Timbers U17 men, but this is not the same as actual game experience; therefore the age rule threatens her development as a player, her career, and her ability to earn money as a pro both from salary and marketing opportunities. But for the age rule, they argue she would be playing for the Thorns, as they have expressed interest in signing her.

Therefore Moultrie’s lawyers are asking for a temporary restraining order that would allow Moultrie to sign immediately and start playing, an injunction prohibiting NWSL from preventing Moultrie from playing pro soccer unless an age rule emerges in a proper CBA, and damages and attorney’s fees. They also mention US Soccer under unnamed conspirators and facilitators, claiming that as USSF subsidizes the league through paying NT player salaries, they could insist NWSL withdraw the age rule.

There is a bit to digest here. Moultrie’s lawyers do have a point about how NWSL’s age rule seems arbitrary and unjustified at this point in time. They also point out that they’re not asking for a club to sign Moultrie, simply that she have the opportunity to sign, and that if no club actually wants her, then she simply won’t be signed.

There are also implications for single entity leagues here, as the suit argues that the 10 teams currently in NWSL are independent businesses with separate owners, and that while they may share some expenses and revenues, they are competitors.

Other speculation, like if Moultrie actually does have the skill to go pro or if she even has true agency in this decision as a 15 year old with a wealthy and proactive parent, an agent, and lawyers around her, will require more evidence. Moultrie is already in the US youth national team system, but has not been called up to any senior national team camp - perhaps influenced by the lack of soccer in 2020 due to COVID, and now by the need for Olympic roster evaluation leaving no room for youth player experimentation. In 2019 she played just about a half for the Thorns in a preseason game against the U-23 WNT and looked okay, if not on the same fitness level as the adults around her (to be expected). Thorns head coach Mark Parsons has made some mildly guarded but positive statements about her quality, saying he was happy with her decision making in that preseason game. And she played again in a Thorns preseason game this March between the Thorns and the Reign.

Ultimately there’s not going to be a wave of teens waiting to crash into the league’s rosters should the court rule in Moultrie’s favor. The truly interesting parts of this suit might actually be its implications for single entity, and the way it exposes once again that NWSL seems to handle its internal mechanisms in a slapdash, ad-hoc manner.