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June 11, 2016 — A regulatory loophole

Earlier this week, three-time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings dropped an enormous announcement during a Skype interview with a presenter for the Lax Sports Network.

“I’m on the (Baltimore) Ride,” she said. “I didn’t fill out the application because I had about 100,000 things to do, but we worked it out.”

This made the greatest attacking midfielder in the history of NCAA Division I women’s lacrosse available for selection for the Ride last night as United Women’s Lacrosse (UWLX) embarked on its second matchday in Amherst, Mass.

And the same went for a number of superb senior collegiate players such as Kayla Treanor, who suited up last night for the Boston Storm, and Alice Mercer, who will suit up today for the Long Island Sound.

Herein, however, is a problem.

Since the first organized professional sports teams began in the 1860s (Notts County in English soccer, the Cincinnati Red Stockings in American baseball), there have been mechanisms put in place to regulate the movement of players — from their initial signing to within leagues, even across national borders.

These mechanisms have evolved throughout the years. There is no longer a reserve clause in baseball, which bound a player to a team for the rest of his life at the club’s pleasure; that was invalidated through collective bargaining after a Supreme Court decision in 1972 in the Curt Flood matter.

In soccer, a player had to register with a particular football club in order to be able to play for that team in a particular year. That system was invalidated in the Jean-Marc Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995.

The UWLX, as the world’s first semi-professional women’s lacrosse league, is working off a blank sheet of paper not only when it comes to the rules of the game, but when it comes to how athletes are selected to teams year over year. The International Lacrosse Federation does not control how players are bought, sold, and traded in a global marketplace, so the UWLX braintrust has had to develop a hybrid system in order to fill out the 20-player rosters for the four-team league.

Half of the players were chosen through a 10-round draft earlier held April 13, and a group of players were added on later after a day-long player combine held in Philadelphia. These late additions were announced only after their collegiate seasons were over.

As a story in Lacrosse Magazine said yesterday, “Each of the players above were taken by their respective UWLX club through the draft process and are now eligible for professional competition due to the completion of their college seasons.”

This tells me that the collegiate draft was held in conjunction with the post-combine draft, which makes sense.

Now, in the last 30 years or so of observing non-major sports leagues, I’ve seen a number of interesting workarounds to managing player movements. I once saw a league hold an entry draft and a supplemental draft in order to be able to ensure that a pair of college teammates wound up on the same professional team, as that team had the top choice in both drafts.

I observed a league engineering an enormous and complicated trade in order to accommodate its most charismatic and marketable star, who had just gotten married to a professional athlete living in another city where the league just happened to have a team. I have also observed a league engineering the trade of a high draft pick in order to ensure that the life partner of the league’s No. 1 pick would wind up on the same team.

When it comes to the way that women’s sports teams in enterprises have managed their players, ranging from the Harrow Cup to the Umbro W-League to National Professional Fastpitch, I have observed a kind of creative free agency, where players pretty much have free rein to move from one team to another year over year, despite being initially assigned to a team for a period of time.

What will UWLX do in 2017 and beyond? Stay tuned.

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