Federal Antitrust Law Continues to Protect Young Athletes - Even Professionals


Image from The Oregonian


Just a few days before the Alston decision was released by the Supreme Court, another federal antitrust lawsuit handed a victory to a young athlete.


Olivia Moultrie is a professional soccer player for the Portland Thorns in the National Women's Soccer League. She plays midfield, and she's very talented-- some say prodigal. She is also only fifteen years old, making her the youngest women's professional soccer player in the United States.


However, before June 15, 2021, Moultrie was prohibited from signing a professional deal with any team in the NWSL due to a rule requiring players to be eighteen years old to play. She was, however, practicing and scrimmaging with the Thorns.


Moultrie's father challenged the age rule in the United States District Court. The complaint alleges that the NWSL rule violates the Sherman Antitrust Act.


Plaintiff (Moultrie) argued that the several teams comprising the NWSL have created a rule that players must be 18 years old to sign a professional contract to play in the league. Accordingly, this violates federal antitrust laws insofar as it is the only women's league that acquires and maintains professional soccer talent. Simply put, the teams colluded to exclude players of a certain age regardless of the player's talent. Without a reasonable alternative, it is unlawful.


The complaint further compares similar rules in the men's league, the MLS. Demonstrating that the MLS has no similar rule, and there are a handful of MLS teams that had signed players under 18 years of age.


In their motion for a temporary restraining order, which Judge Immergut granted, Plaintiff cites several antitrust cases that they say are strikingly similar and that no other cases oppose their conclusion.


On the other hand, Defendant (NWSL), who has appealed the decision, argued that Moultrie was unable to prove "serious irreparable harm." The league also asserts that because there were ongoing negotiations with the NWSL Players Association, the Court would be impermissibly intervening for Moultrie's sole benefit at the expense of the rest of the league's players.


Suppose the Player's Association and the League end up entering into a Collective Bargaining Agreement containing the same age rule. In that case, Moultrie could still lose her eligibility to play, notwithstanding Judge Immergut's decision to grant Plaintiff's motion.


Meanwhile, Moultrie has already made her NWSL debut in front of tens of thousands of proud fans at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon. If the NWSL wins on appeal it can complicate her future with the club and - perhaps - unwind the historical precedent set by the Thorns.

There is no better intersection of sports and law than a good antitrust showdown, and again young athletes are the winners.