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THE OLIVIA MOULTRIE CASE: AN ENCOURAGING ORDER AGAINST AN ARBITRARY RULE


This post has been authored by Mr. Advait Raghunath.


  • Advait is a Second-year law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. As an avid watcher of sport for over 10 years now, his interest has deepened beyond what we see on screen. The social context behind sports merged with the policy decisions taken in the field of sports law has spurred him to research and analyse more in the future.


INTRODUCTION


On the 24th of May 2021, Judge Karin J. Immergut of the US District Court for the District of Oregon granted a Temporary Restraining Order (hereinafter the “TRO”) to a 15-year-old soccer player named Olivia Moultrie. Prior to this, Moultrie was barred from playing in the National Women’s Soccer League (hereinafter the “NWSL”) and was also disallowed from signing a professional contract with an NWSL team owing to the age requirement set by the NWSL. She did not meet the minimum age requirement (18-years-old) set by the league for competing professionally. Although the minimum age requirement is not explicitly mentioned under the league’s operations manual, the definition of a “player” under the manual is restricted to those who are at least the age of 18. This minimum age requirement, commonly referred to as the “age rule”, has been heavily criticised owing to its arbitrary nature in Judge Immergut’s order.


The NWSL never convincingly justified the rule’s existence prior to the hearing and failed to do so even during court proceedings. The TRO obtained by Moultrie allows her to seek offers for a professional contract for 14 days from the date of the order, which could be extended until a hearing for a preliminary injunction is conducted. Moultrie brought the suit for a TRO for this very purpose. In all probability, she will sign a professional contract with the side she trains with, the Portland Thorns. As the plaintiff, she believed that the age rule inhibited her development as a soccer player and put forth her contentions by attempting to prove that the “age rule” was anti-competitive, hence violative of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Judge Immergut held that these contentions were valid. Therefore, she granted the TRO in the case of Olivia Moultrie through K.C. Moultrie v. National Women’s Soccer League. In this piece, the author discusses how the order is an encouraging assertion against the arbitrary rule’s anti-competitive nature and underlying gender bias.


THE AGE RULE’S ANTI-COMPETITIVE NATURE


Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits the formation of any contract which is in restraint of trade or commerce. Its purpose is to prevent any action which creates unreasonable restraint on competition. In this case, for the plaintiff to prove that the age rule is anti-competitive it is essential for her to first establish that there is an existence of a contract between two or more separate parties. The defendant, on the other hand, has attempted to hide behind the veil of the NWSL being a single entity. However, upon hearing arguments from both sides, the Court recognised this veil and identified the multiple teams within the NWSL as the parties which have agreed upon enforcing the age rule. Hence, the plaintiff successfully proved that multiple teams which compete against each other are to be treated as separate legal entities and not as one single entity.


Having established that there exists a contract to enforce the age rule, the plaintiff then had to prove that the age rule was restraining trade or commerce. The NWSL, as the only professional league for women’s soccer in the US, does not have any competition within the country. The age rule restricts the pool/market of players who can be selected by teams to those who are 18-years-old or above. Hence, when any woman under the age of 18 is looking to pursue professional soccer in the US, she has no path to do so owing to the NWSL’s age rule. As Moultrie is under the age of 18, she is prevented from being amongst the market of soccer players who wish to sign professional contracts and play for the NWSL’s teams. Thus, the age rule is clearly restraining the plaintiff from being a part of the market of soccer players who are eligible to play in the NWSL. Judge Immergut was satisfied with these arguments and agreed that the age rule was in restraint of trade/commerce.


During the time of submissions, the NWSL was expected to counter the claims of the plaintiff to show that the age rule was not just anti-competitive, but pro-competitive. However, they failed to do so as their rationale behind the rule was in self-interest rather than a pro-competitive spirit. The NWSL in their arguments primarily associated the reasoning for the rule with cutting the costs and liabilities that are involved when minors are brought into the sport. Therefore, the NWSL was unsuccessful in proving that the age rule was pro-competitive.


One of the main reasons the age rule was deemed to be anti-competitive and violative of the Sherman Act was the manner in which it was enforced. The age rule did not come about in the form of a collective bargaining agreement (hereinafter referred to as a “CBA”). A CBA, in most cases, is an agreement between the employer and the employees’ union which dictates the terms and conditions of employment. It is the result of comprehensive to-and-fro negotiation between the two parties. Had there been a CBA in place, then Section 1 of the Sherman Act would not be applicable, as held in Wood v. National Basketball Association.


In the present case, the NWSL would form the employers, while the NWSL Players’ Association is the employees’ union. However, there have been no steps taken in the past to involve the Players’ Association in deciding the minimum age requirement for participating in the league. It was only recently that a decision to enter into negotiations for a CBA was initiated. The NWSL even tried to use this as a defence in court, claiming that if a TRO were to be granted, it would hamper negotiations for the CBA. Despite this, Judge Immergut explained that as CBA’s take years to form, it would be unfair not to provide the plaintiff with a remedy for the injury caused upon her owing to the anti-competitive nature of the age rule.


THE AGE RULE’S UNDERLYING GENDER BIAS


Having already established that the NWSL failed to provide sufficient benefits for the age rule’s presence, the author will now analyse the rule’s underlying gender bias. To draw a direct comparison, we may turn our attention towards the USA’s professional soccer league for males, i.e., Major League Soccer (hereinafter referred to as MLS). The MLS has no such age rule and has seen numerous players make their debut at Moultrie’s age or even younger. Alphonso Davies, now a star for the male Bayern Munich first team, made his debut at the age of 15 for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Davies was able to sign a professional contract with the Vancouver Whitecaps despite his age owing to the MLS’ “home-grown rule” which enables minors who have trained with a team’s academy to sign with them professionally. No such rule exists for the NWSL, which forces women to wait until they turn 18-year-old to sign a professional contract and play for the first team.


Moultrie joined the Portland Thorns academy at the age of 13, which under the MLS’ rules would enable her to sign a professional contract with the same team. The MLS commissioner, Don Garber, has been vocal about the positive outcomes the development of young players has had on the league. He said, “Really, the story of Major League Soccer today is about youth.” He also emphasised the league’s focus to provide opportunities to develop as early as they can. There is no reason why the same standards should not be held for female teenagers who wish to sign professional contracts and play in the NWSL. The gender bias within the NWSL’s rules and regulations may not be intentional but is certainly present. The intent is a discussion for another day and will hopefully be clarified during CBA negotiations between the NWSL and the NWSL’s Players’ Association.


Judge Immergut pointed out how Moultrie’s gender was the only factor that barred her from pursuing her aspirations of playing professional soccer. The same gender discrimination does not exist in most other countries where soccer is a career option for males and females. Moultrie had publicly expressed her discontent with the rule’s gender bias on her Twitter account. Her legal counsel, Max Forer, expressed similar concerns in a statement. He further added that Moultrie’s eligibility to play for the US National Women’s Team but not for an NWSL team is another example of how the age rule is unfair.


CONCLUSION


The age rule of the NWSL needs immediate reform as it hampers the development of teenage female soccer players. While the TRO granted by Judge Immergut is only a temporary solution for an isolated case, the findings in the order are of great significance. The lack of pro-competitive and player-focused rationale in the age rule has been clearly hammered down upon by the Hon’ble judge. She has been unforgiving with her opinions on the age rule’s arbitrariness. This could play a decisive role in the CBA talks which are ongoing between the NWSL and the NWSL’s Players’ Association. The order serves as a beacon of hope for the upcoming generations of women soccer stars who aspire to turn pro and play amongst the USA’s best in the NWSL.

The author can be reached for comments on his email at 19010125308@symlaw.ac.in


Cite as: Advait Raghunath, The Olivia Moultrie case: An encouraging order against an arbitrary rule, Extra-Cover: The Sports Law Blog of India (16th July 2021), Accessed at https://www.extra-cover.org/post/the-olivia-moultrie-case-an-encouraging-order-against-an-arbitrary-rule [Date of Access].


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