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NWSL May 25, 2021

U.S. judge issues order allowing 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie to play in NWSL

By Adam Schwager
SoccerWire Staff Writer

In a recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Karin J. Immergut issued a temporary restraining order against the NWSL, preventing the league from enforcing their age restrictions against 15-year old phenom Olivia Moultrie. The ruling will allow Moultrie to play for the Portland Thorns senior team in NWSL competition.

Moultrie has been breaking barriers in the women’s game for quite some time now. Initially, Moultrie committed to play Division I at the University of North Carolina at age 11. At age 13, Moultrie signed with the Portland Thorns and inked a nine-year deal with Nike, becoming the youngest player to ever sign with the brand.

In the opinion of the court, the NWSL’s age restriction likely violates the Sherman Antitrust Act, rejecting the NWSL’s argument that the league is a single entity and therefore cannot be anticompetitive. In her decision, Immergut wrote, “Given the information in the record at this time, this Court finds that Plaintiff has shown that the law and facts clearly favor her position that the NWSL’s Age Rule violates § 1 of the Sherman Act.”

It was first reported earlier this month that Olivia’s father K.C. Moultrie had filed a lawsuit against the NWSL on her behalf. In their filing, Moultrie’s party requested that the restraining order be granted before May 15, the opening day of the NWSL season. While the order did not come as soon as Moultrie’s side may have liked, it still came very early into the 2021 season, as Moultrie’s Portland Thorns have only played two matches.

The temporary restraining order against the NWSL will last for 14 days unless otherwise extended by the court or by agreement of the NWSL. There has not yet been a schedule set for a preliminary injunction to seek more long-term relief. The Thorns have three games scheduled during the 14-day window set by the court.

Immergut found that, contrary to the NWSL’s arguments, Moultrie’s claimed injury is not “entirely speculative,” citing Moultrie’s participation in Thorns preseason games, scrimmages and practices. Immergut also cited testimony from two-time World Cup Champion Becky Sauerbrunn, who argues that preventing Moultrie from playing “can slow her development, delay her improvement, and more generally impede her career. Playing against top professional competition, when the opponents play their hardest and when your failures have consequences, is how you learn to be at your best.”

Immergut also stated that the NWSL had not provided any procompetitive purpose for their exclusionary rule and felt that the NWSL’s reasonings were intended to prevent increasing overhead costs. The ruling states that if the age restriction were to come about through a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NWSL and the newfound NWSLPA, they would not violate the Sherman Act. However, the court rejects the NWSL’s argument that they should be exempt because they have recognized the union and are currently in CBA negotiations, which can take years to complete.

Finally, Immergut brought up the NWSL’s male counterpart, Major League Soccer. MLS has no age limit, and according to the filing “more than half of MLS teams allegedly had one or more players on their roster under the age of 18.” Immergut stated that the only thing standing between Moultrie and her goal of becoming a professional soccer player is her gender.

It remains to be seen whether or not Moultrie will make an appearance in a professional game anytime soon, but, on the back of this ruling, it could happen sooner rather than later. Five members of the Portland Thorns starting roster were selected for training camp with the U.S. Women’s National Team ahead of the 2021 WNT Summer Series, potentially opening up some playing opportunities for Moultrie if she is able to sign a deal in the coming days.

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