Olivia Moultrie is a 15-year-old soccer phenom who has been training with the Portland Thorns since 2019 after Nike signed her to a nine-year endorsement deal. Moultrie has been denied from signing with a team due to the National Women’s Soccer League’s age rules, but that could soon change.
On May 4, the teenage superstar filed an anti-trust lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon. Moultrie’s suit alleged that her career was being “irreparably harmed” due to the NWSL’s rule of not allowing players under the age of 18 to sign for a team.
The signing of players under 18 is seen in leagues across the world and even in Major League Soccer. Freddy Adu signed a professional contract with MLS in 2004 at the young age of 14. Moultrie pointed out on Twitter that she could be a professional in different parts of the world right now.
...or if I were a boy. The only gender and country combination in the entire world where I can’t play professional soccer is as a female in the United States. Just something to consider. https://t.co/R9aERjuq1X— Olivia Moultrie (@olivia_moultrie) May 21, 2021
On Monday, a federal court issued a temporary restraining order that gives Moultrie the chance to sign with any NWSL team. The order will last two weeks. The temporary restraining order allows the court to further review the merits of a preliminary injunction.
U.S. District Judge Karin J. Immergut ruled that Moultrie had clearly shown the NWSL’s refusal to allow her to play due to her age.
“Plaintiff has shown that the 10 teams that make up the NWSL have agreed to impose the NWSL's age restriction which excludes female competitors from the only available professional soccer opportunity in the United States because they are under 18, regardless of talent, maturity, strength, and ability,” Immergut stated.
Immergut also said that allowing Moultrie to sign with a team would promote gender equality.
"This Court notes that the NWSL's comparable men's league in the United States, MLS, has no age limit and employs players under 18. More than half of MLS teams allegedly had one or more players on their roster under the age of 18.
"In other words, the only thing currently standing between Plaintiff and her aspiration to be a professional soccer player in this country is her gender. Promoting gender equity in athletics is clearly in the public interest."
Immergut quoted USWNT captain and Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been an avid advocate for Moultrie playing in the NWSL.
Just to be clear, Olivia is a pro in all but matchdays. She should be able to play in the @NWSL and we should be nurturing young talent—allowing them to develop by playing against the best. Let her play. https://t.co/61poKXp7an— Becky Sauerbrunn (@beckysauerbrunn) April 14, 2021
Sauerbrunn pointed out that “nothing is a full substitute for competition” and excluding Moultrie from playing professionally, “can slow her development, delay her improvement, and more generally impede her career.”
The NWSL’s reasons for not allowing Moultrie to play were deemed inadequate by Immergut.
“Defendants have not presented any compelling procompetitive reasons to justify this anticompetitive policy, nor have they shown that eliminating the Age Rule will cause any nonspeculative injury to the NWSL. Defendants have offered no legitimate procompetitive justification for treating young women who want an opportunity to play professional soccer differently than young men."
One important caveat is that Immergut noted the league’s age rule wasn’t “borne through collective bargaining with a players’ association.” The NWSL and NWSL Players Association are currently discussing a Collective Bargaining Agreement. If the NWSL and NWSL PA reach an agreement that includes an age restriction, then that agreement could supplant a court order.
An NWSL spokesperson said that the age restriction will continue to be discussed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
"As we said when this action was filed, the NWSL is in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with the NWSL Players Association over all terms of employment, including the age rule," said the NWSL spokesperson. "We continue to believe that is the appropriate place for a decision on this topic and are evaluating our options with respect to the district court's order."