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Federal Court Order NWSL To Lift Age Restrictions

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) currently requires players be at least 18 years old to play in the league. Olivia Moultrie, who is 15 years old, is seeking a permanent injunction against the NWSL to force them to let her play. She claims the policy violates the Sherman Antitrust Act because the “ten teams that make up the NWSL have agreed among themselves, and with the League, not to contract with soccer players under the age of 18, without regard to their talents or ability to compete in the League.” She argued the rule does not serve a legitimate business justification or purpose. Moultrie began practicing with the Portland Thorns soccer team when she was 13 years old and signed a nine-year endorsement deal with Nike in 2019. Becky Sauerbrunn, a captain of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Team, supported Moultrie’s petition to the court. Sauerbrunn argued that keeping Moultrie out of the NWSL would delay her improvement, slow her development, and hinder her finite career.

A federal district court judge agreed with Moultrie enough to issue a temporary restraining order that will allow her to play. The judge wrote, “Given the information in the record at this time, this court finds that [Moultre] has shown that the law and facts clearly favor her position” that the league’s rule violates the Sherman Act. The league failed to show the judge any “legitimate procompetitive justification for treating young women who want an opportunity to play professional soccer differently than young men.” Major League Soccer does not have a similar age restriction. Thus, the federal judge asserted removing the age restriction promotes gender equity in sports.

Noting the loss of players due to the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, the judge suggested Moultrie will have an increased opportunity to get playing time with the NWSL. The judge also emphasized her decision will not apply to other U.S. sports leagues because they all have collective bargaining agreements regarding age in place. Those agreements reflect a negotiated and bargained-for process between owners and players. The NWSL is currently negotiating with the players’ union to create a collective bargaining agreement; it wants to include an age restriction.