• Nathan Max

Teen Unfairly Barred From NWSL

Photo Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images. Olivia Moultrie, 15, has filed suit against the NWSL for banning minors.

Let Olivia Moultrie play.

Moultrie, the 15-year-old soccer prodigy who turned pro at 13, has been inexplicably prohibited from taking the field in the National Women’s Soccer League for the last two years. Now, she is fighting back, having filed an antitrust lawsuit this week against the league. Moultrie hopes to suit up in the Portland Thorns’ season opener May 16.

If the NWSL has its way, Moultrie won’t play until she turns 18.

This is bad policy from a business perspective, it is unfair to Moultrie and other minors with the talent and desire to play professionally, and it just plain makes no sense. The league, which has no collective bargaining agreement with its players, has simply set an arbitrary age barrier for no discernable reason.

Women’s sports in general, and soccer in particular, is littered with examples of individuals who successfully turned pro prior to their 18th birthdays. The women’s tennis circuit, for example, has had numerous teenage professionals among its ranks, several of whom quickly rose to greatness. Coco Gauff, the most recent example, won her first tournament two years ago at age 15.

On the soccer front, this is a true equality issue. It is an undeniable fact that if a teenage boy was talented enough to play in Major League Soccer, he would be given the chance to do so. We know this because it has already happened on several occasions.

The two most obvious examples are Freddy Adu, who played for D.C. United at age 14, and Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, who played for the Vancouver Whitecaps at age 15. Furthermore, if Moultrie grew up in Europe, she would be permitted to play professionally there. So why is she being denied that opportunity in the supposed land of opportunity?

Putting all the fairness and equality issues aside, the NWSL is making a terrible business decision. Young phenoms bring with them attention, publicity and public interest, and lord knows the NWSL could use all of that. For all the success and media attention the U.S. Women’s National Team receives, domestic women’s soccer isn’t exactly breaking the bank in this country.

When Jennifer Capriati burst onto the tennis scene at age 13, she graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. The NWSL has already blown it by allowing two years to pass without letting Moultrie sign a pro contract with the Thorns. Stifling her for three more years would be akin to business malpractice.

Moultrie has signed a nine-year endorsement deal with Nike. That’s a company that knows a thing or two about promoting its athletes, and the NWSL would only stand to benefit from a potential advertising blitz starring its youngest player. Moultrie could quickly become one of the nation’s most recognizable faces in women’s soccer, and fans across the country would flock to stadiums to see her play.

Instead, Moultrie is toiling in obscurity, playing in the Thorns’ developmental youth system, only participating in first-team activities in training, scrimmages, exhibitions and friendlies.

Supporters of the NWSL’s age rule could point to the many young athletes who turned pro early and quickly flamed out. Yes, Capriati and Adu both had their well-documented issues growing up in the limelight. But going pro as a teen was their decision to make, and that of their families. It was not the WTA’s decision or MLS’s decision.

And it should not be the NWSL’s decision to slam the door on Moultrie.

Given the history of professional women’s soccer in this country, there’s no guarantee the NWSL will exist when Moultrie turns 18. Two other attempts at professional leagues have failed in the last 20 years. Moultrie wants to play now, and it is well past time to allow her to do it. It’s in everyone’s best interest.