Olivia Moultrie, the 15-year-old American girls' soccer phenom, made history when she turned pro at the age of 13. But she hasn't played a professional minute in the two years since, prompting her to file an antitrust lawsuit against the NWSL, The Athletic reported on Wednesday.
The lawsuit asks for preliminary injunction relief so she can immediately sign a professional contract to play with the Portland Thorns' first team, per The Athletic.
"It's always been a dream of mine to play professionally in the U.S.," Moultrie said in a statement provided by her lawyers, via The Athletic. "I know girls my age are competing around the world and I just want to get on the field and officially compete."
Teenage soccer star sues NWSL to play
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland alleges that the NWSL's requirement that players be 18 to sign a contract and play on the top-level team violates the Sherman Antitrust Act, Paul Tenorio reported for The Athletic. Passed in 1890, the federal statute was the first to prohibit groups of businesses that collude or merge to form a monopoly and dictate pricing.
Moultrie, who signed a marketing deal with Nike at 13, currently trains with the Portland Thorns. She has played in scrimmages, but is not allowed to play in official games at the top level. She can currently only play for the youth teams.
The NWSL Challenge Cup final is on Saturday between West champion Thorns and East champion NJ/NY Gotham FC. The 2021 regular season kicks off on May 15.
The lawsuit asks for monetary damages as well as the immediate injunction. It notes that, per The Athletic, "irreparable harm is being done to Moultrie's professional career, including potentially lost salary, reduction in value of marketing opportunities and delaying, 'her likelihood of being invited to seek a place on the U.S. women's national team, and making the team, or the U.S. Olympic team.'"
Other parties can be named to the suit in the future, including the U.S. Soccer Federation. The federation is already involved in a years-long equal pay lawsuit with members of the USWNT.
Lawsuit: Male youth stars play in MLS
Moultrie, who initially accepted a scholarship to play at North Carolina at the age of 11, made multiple requests to sign a professional contract and each time the league has said no, according to the lawsuit. If not for the age minimum, Moultrie could have already signed a contract with a team as early as last year, per the suit.
"The truth is that if Olivia Moultrie was male, she'd already be playing in MLS," said Miller Nash Graham & Dunn sports law attorney Max Forer, one of the lawyers representing Moultrie, to The Athletic. "Further, she's already eligible to play for the U.S. Women's National Team but can't officially play in the league that develops and prepares talent for the National Team, that's unfair."
The lawsuit notes that players under the age of 18 are signed professional in leagues around the world and in MLS at home. For example, Alphonso Davies made his debut for the Vancouver Whitecaps at 15 years old, which led to Bayern Munich paying a $22 million fee to sign him at 17.
USWNTers Sauerbrunn, Horan sign on in support
The lawsuit includes a list of supporters for Moultrie, including Thorns and USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan. Sauerbrunn was named the new USWNT captain in January. Horan skipped college to play for Paris Saint-Germain overseas, becoming the first American woman to do so.
The lawsuit alleges the league hasn't provided evidence of when or how the age rule was enacted, per The Athletic. It notes that courts have ruled against age minimums in professional sports unless it is part of the collective bargaining agreement, which the NWSL does not have.
The league and NWSL Players Association announced in April they had begun negotiations for their first CBA. The lawsuit said an age limit has not been included in initial CBA proposals, per The Athletic.
The suit notes the NWSL "is the only acquirer of talent in (the U.S.) market," per The Athletic, and Moultrie can't play overseas because of FIFA rules.
NWSL: CBA right place to discuss age requirements
The NWSL released a statement that it would "vigorously defend our league against this litigation," via Meg Linehan of The Athletic.
"The league is engaged in collective bargaining with the NWSL Players Association, which is the appropriate place according to Federal labor law for issues regarding terms and conditions of employment to play out. Age requirements are a common feature of many men's and women's professional leagues in the U.S. and abroad. The rules that govern league operations are in place to support player and team operators and ensure the NWSL remains the premier women's soccer league in the world. We will vigorously defend our league against this litigation because it seeks to change a long-standing rule and interferes with the collective bargaining process."
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