A federal court has issued a 14-day temporary restraining order (TRO) that could allow 15-year-old soccer player Olivia Moultrie to sign a professional contract with any team in the National Women's Soccer League.
At issue is the NWSL's rule that prevents players under the age of 18 from signing a professional contract with the league. Back on May 4, Moultrie sued the NWSL on anti-trust grounds, highlighting the fact that on the men's side, Major League Soccer has signed numerous players under the age of 18 to professional contracts. But in the interim her lawyers requested the issuance of the TRO, as well as a preliminary injunction. The TRO, which could be extended by the court, will allow the court to examine the merits of a preliminary injunction in more depth.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Karin J. Immergut stated: "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.
"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."
Both the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association are engaged in talks over a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). If an agreement is reached, and if it includes an age restriction, then the CBA could supersede any court order. The NWSL continues to contend that CBA negotiations are where the issue should be resolved.
"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," the NWSL said via a league 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."
Yet Immergut ruled that the TRO would have no impact on the ongoing negotiations. She also shot down the NWSL's assertion that the age restriction has benefits such as "concern for minor athletes' development" and adherence to the SafeSport Act and the NWSL's costs associated with implementing the SafeSport Act.
Immergut noted that "the list appears to be more directed at reducing Defendant's overhead costs than benefitting competition."
The NWSL also argued that there was no mechanism to assign Moultrie to a team in midseason, but Immergut noted that just such an eventuality was laid out in the league's 2021 Competition Manual.
Immergut found Moultrie's argument -- that the player's career would be damaged if not allowed to play -- more compelling.
"Plaintiff has presented persuasive evidence that each day that passes with the Age Rule in place represents a missed opportunity for her potential professional soccer career. Accordingly, this Court finds that the merits clearly favor Plaintiff's position and that she will be irreparably harmed if this Court does not grant the TRO. Furthermore, the balance of equities and the public interest strongly favor affording girls in the United States the same opportunities as boys."