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Stephanie Labbé is a 2016 bronze-medal Olympian considered to be one of the best women’s soccer players in Canada.
In February, after she finished on medical leave for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit, the team gave up its rights to her services, leaving the goaltender open to the league’s distribution process.
When she wasn’t claimed by another NWSL team, Labbé, 31, declined to seek an overseas soccer job, and instead focused on earning a job with the Calgary Foothills FC men’s soccer team.
“The place I am in my career right now, I just feel like I’m ready for something completely different and ready to challenge myself in ways that I’ve never been challenged before,” Labbé told CBC in March. “This [the men’s game] is where all the arrows were pointing and I started reaching out to different coaches of different clubs.”
While neither Labbé nor the Spirit explained the medical leave, Labbé has been open about her struggles with depression. She also described her relationship with the Spirit as “toxic” after she returned from the Rio Olympics.
The Foothills play in the Premier Development League, which works as a minor league sponsored by U.S. and Canadian professional soccer leagues. It has been a mid-way point for college players who don’t make the jump directly to a league like MLS.
Labbé received encouragement from coach Tommy Wheeldon Jr. during her tryout process.
“She’s a super-strong personality and the players have taken to her,” Wheeldon told CBC. “All I said to her is we’re a forward-thinking club, we’re always open-minded and players are based on ability. And if she can come in and perform at the level that we need her, then yeah we’re open-minded to put her into the action, no problem.”
On Wednesday, after playing in preseason games for the Foothills, Labbé learned from the league that she is not eligible to play in the men’s league because she is a woman.
The PDL explained its decision in a statement.
“Like virtually all of our peer leagues around the world, the PDL has gender-based eligibility requirements, which we applied consistently in this case. Although our specific mission relates to the men’s game, we applaud all that female players have done to move the sport of soccer forward in North America. Stephanie Labbé, in particular, has had tremendous success, and we wish her the best as she continues to pursue her career goals.”
Labbé responded via her blog.
“I have given it my best fight and feel myself fitting in, but unfortunately not everyone is as open minded about this situation. After inquiring to the league, The PDL’s initial response was that as per the rules ‘The PDL is a men’s league’ and ‘given that the PDL is a gender-based league, women are ineligible to play.'”
Wheeldon Jr. told CBC in a statement that the team would not appeal the decision. Labbé said she wanted the team to focus on its season while she plans to fight the ruling in the offseason.
“It shouldn’t matter what gender you are but that’s where we are right now and it’s a battle,” Labbé said. “I’m very passionate about equal rights.”
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