An Oregon federal court on Monday granted 15-year-old soccer phenom Olivia Moultrie a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the National Women’s Soccer League, giving her the immediate eligibility to play soccer in the NWSL. The Court granted a temporary order barring the NWSL from enforcing their age rule, which prevents anyone under the age of 18 from playing in the league. The TRO will remain in effect for 14 days, unless extended by the Court or a new collective bargaining agreement is put in place.
Moultrie filed her complaint and motion for a temporary restraining order on May 4, 2021, claiming that the NWSL’s age limit on play violates federal antitrust law. The Court held a hearing on the motion on May 20th and issued its decision Monday afternoon. TRO’s are not easy to come by, and Moultrie had to prove that she was likely to succeed on the merits of her case, she would suffer irreparable harm, the balance of equities was in her favor, and an injunction was in the public interest.
When asked for comment after the Courts order came down, an NWSL spokesman stated, “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.” They added, “We continue to believe that is the appropriate place for a decision on this topic and evaluating our options with respect to the district court’s order.”
The Court agreed with Moultrie that her claim had merit, and the age rule restrains competition unfairly. The Court added that based on evidence from current NWSL players and Moultrie’s current coach, she was able to prove that “she has the requisite skills and is ready to play professional soccer,” “that the career of a professional soccer player is short,” and “there are no substitutes to actual professional competition to help her realize her full potential.”
So, what does this mean? For the short term, it means that Moultrie can be signed by a team and play in the NWSL, at least for the next 14 days. In the context of professional sports leagues, courts usually uphold rules made by collective bargaining agreements (CBA) as immune to federal antitrust law. This means that since the NWSL and NWSLPA are in the process of negotiating the league’s first ever CBA, if they decide to include an age rule in that CBA, Moultrie would be unable to play and a court would not overturn that decision.
The NWSL also has the option to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In spite of the fact that the temporary injunction is only set to last 14 days, the Court’s decision gave some insight that a longer term injunction preventing the current age rule from remaining in place could be likely. The Court stated, “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.”
In the long term, this decision is unlikely to have a lasting impact. As previously stated, rules restricting age have been legal in professional sports leagues when it is bargained for by the players unions. Does this mean that we will see Moultrie suit up for the Portland Thorns or any other NWSL team this season? When asked for comment, the Thorns declined given the pending legal battle. Moultrie’s agent also declined to comment. As of now, Moultrie’s actual NWSL future remains unclear, but the Court cleared a temporary path for her to play professional sports in the United States.
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