On May 24, Judge Karin Immergut approved a temporary restraining order that now forces the NWSL to lift its 18+ age limit. The ruling follows the application for the RO that was filed on May 4 by 15-year old Olivia Moultrie and her camp, seeking to allow her to make her professional debut in North American soccer. The order is set to expire in two weeks, but as Judge Immergut pointed out, a preliminary injunction hearing may take place.
The league’s council attempted to employ the single entity defence as means to not have to lift its age restriction, but seeing as each NWSL team has an independent owner that pays for at least some of the expenses, and employs all their own personnel, the league does not qualify as a single entity. Leagues that own and operate all their teams, like the XFL, are exempt from Section I of the Sherman Antitrust Act, a federal law that governs how competing businesses collaborate to restrict competition.
In looking at Judge Immergut’s ruling, it becomes clear that this wasn’t the only hole in the league’s defense. The ruling read that the league “failed to offer legitimate procompetitive justification for treating young women who want an opportunity to play professional soccer differently than young men.”
This comment is with regards to the absence of an equivalent age rule being in place in the NWSL’s male counterpart: the MLS. In fact, it isn’t just the MLS that does not restrict the age of its players. Moultrie rightfully pointed out that “the only gender and country combination in the entire world where [she] can’t play professional soccer is as a female in the United States.”
Judge Immergut’s statement went on to read that “Plaintiff has shown that the ten 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.”
It was with that notion of gender inequity that the Judge grounded her ruling as serving public interest, summarizing it nicely by closing her statement by saying that “the only thing currently standing between Plaintiff and her aspiration to be a professional soccer player in this country is her gender.”
Other misses in the NWSL’s case were failure to account for the extra roster spots that will open come the Olympic tournament that will contribute to increased meaningful playing time for Moultrie, as well as the fact that this age rule was not agreed upon through a collective bargaining agreement. There is not, nor has there ever been, a CBA in place between the NWSL and the NWSLPA.
What Happens Next
The legal situation could change on a few fronts moving forward. The NWSL could petition the US Court of Appeals to have the Ninth Circuit review the ruling. But the order is set to expire in 14 days, though a lasting preliminary injunction is likely to follow.
Beyond the next two weeks, it is important to note that Moultrie’s win is not about to become the playbook young players flip through when trying to figure out how to circumvent rules in other major sports. Judge Immergyt highlighted the fact that the “non-statutory labor exemption” is what governs leagues that bargain rules impacting issues like wages and working conditions with a players’ association. These rules are not applicable to leagues who come to those rules through means other than bargaining with a players’ association as is the case for the NWSL.
Regardless of what happens in the immediate future, we can be sure that the future of women’s soccer is at excellent feet because of Olivia Moultrie.
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