August 26, 2023 

Former WBL player Kathy DeBoer has always fought for women’s sports

In her dual-sport career, DeBoer filed a Title IX lawsuit as a college student, played professional basketball and coached college volleyball

According to Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) trailblazer Kathy DeBoer, “Hindsight makes you better than you were and makes you more important than you were.”

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In hindsight, DeBoer acknowledges the significance of playing in the United States’ first-ever women’s professional basketball league, which existed from 1978 to 1981. At the time, though, she just wanted to hoop.

“I just was eager to continue to … play post-college,” DeBoer told The Next. “My parents were not that excited about it. They wanted me to get a real job and go to graduate school and start my life. But at 22, I wanted to continue to play.”

A Title IX ‘troublemaker’

After beginning her basketball career at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, DeBoer played basketball and volleyball for the Michigan State Spartans (1975-78). Title IX had been passed in 1972, just a few years before her collegiate career began, so DeBoer was part of a wave of female athletes who were experiencing a shifting landscape in education and athletics.

However, though Title IX was enacted into law, its implementation was not guaranteed. DeBoer and her teammates could tell that Michigan State did not comply with Title IX’s mandate of equal opportunity.

“I was part of a lawsuit, which was [in] my senior year … [The] women’s basketball team filed legal action against the university because they were — in our viewpoint, and the court agreed — they were not supporting the women’s team adequately,” DeBoer said. “That was in the Magic Johnson era [at Michigan State, 1977-1979] … the men’s team was very much more popular and supported at a much higher level …

“I thought, ‘Hey, this law passed five, six years ago. [What] are you doing still not complying with it completely?’ Yeah, so I was impatient, as were my teammates, and we took the university to court and won. And women’s basketball funding was significantly increased due to that lawsuit.”

DeBoer was named the MVP for Michigan State women’s basketball during her senior season and was a finalist for the first-ever Wade Trophy for the national player of the year. As a volleyball player with the Spartans in 1975 and 1976, DeBoer led the team to two Big Ten titles and earned team MVP honors in 1976.

When DeBoer was inducted into the Michigan State Hall of Fame in 2022 — 50 years after the passage of Title IX — she acknowledged the significance of the anniversary.

“I’ve been a troublemaker on the Title IX front for most of my career, so there’s an irony to it,” DeBoer said. “What we always say is never waste an anniversary. Never waste a chance to bring attention to issues, to positive things, but also to things that remain undone. Most of the time, hall of fame inductions are celebratory events, but this one has some pain points. There are a lot of stories to tell about the early days and what it was like, but what is more important is where we are today and the work that still needs to be done.”

From professional basketball player to volleyball coach

After she graduated from college in 1978, DeBoer was working a summer volleyball camp when she got some unexpected news.

“I got a phone call. And they called the school —this was before cell phones — and they said, ‘You have been drafted in the fifth round by the Women’s [Professional] Basketball League.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?'”

When she showed up to a tryout for the WBL’s Milwaukee Does, DeBoer quickly noticed a talent disparity in the brand-new professional league.

“There was a talent gap in the league — and you would expect that. Title IX was just six years old from the time that it had passed, and most women started playing basketball later in high school, and there was not enough time to really have elite talent. But some of the players in the league were very, very skilled — Molly Bolin, Marie Kocurek, Trish Roberts until she got hurt was a star.”

During her two-year WBL career, DeBoer was one of the league’s top forwards. She eventually landed with the Minnesota Fillies, playing alongside teammates with whom she remains connected today, including Roberts, Marie Kocurek, Margo Keely and Scooter Delorm. Like many other players at the time, DeBoer was playing for the love of the game. She wasn’t able to earn a sufficient income playing basketball.

The league folded in 1981 amid financial challenges. DeBoer and others in the league had to look for other employment.

“I wanted to go to law school, but I was broke. Playing professional women’s basketball, I made $5,000 the first year and $7,500 the second, and I didn’t collect all of it because the league was starting to struggle financially by the second year,” DeBoer said. “So I was broke. So I needed a job. And I applied for both volleyball and basketball jobs. And I got a volleyball job at Ferris State … I say as a joke now — it’s not really a joke — but I if would have gotten a basketball job, I [would] be a frickin’ millionaire.”


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DeBoer started her volleyball coaching career at Ferris State in 1980. She stayed there until 1984, winning two Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) championships and three consecutive GLIAC Coach of the Year honors. Then she became the volleyball coach at Kentucky (1984-1993) and led the Wildcats to two SEC regular-season and two SEC Tournament championships. DeBoer was named the SEC and National Coach of the Year in 1987.

DeBoer channeled her competitive spirit and experience as a professional athlete into a successful coaching career. The Title IX troublemaker was mentoring a generation of athletes who were able to reach higher due to the fights DeBoer fought on behalf of women’s athletics.

The future of U.S. professional sports

After a decade-plus of coaching, DeBoer transitioned to the administrative side of sports. In 2006, she assumed a leadership role with American Volleyball Coaches Association/Associations International, and in 2007, she joined the Board of Directors for USA Volleyball. Much like women’s basketball players in the United States, top volleyballers head overseas to Europe for financial opportunities that are not available domestically. DeBoer has spent much of her career fighting for more opportunities for women to play volleyball professionally in the United States.

“The United States is the largest exporter of professional [women’s] volleyball [players] in the world,” she said. “Over 400 women post-college are playing in professional leagues overseas, so that’s why the investors thought, ‘Oh, maybe we can build a marketplace here.'”

There is recent momentum around women’s professional volleyball in the U.S. now, thanks to the tireless fight of leaders like DeBoer. Athletes Unlimited Volleyball is entering its third season. Two other leagues — League One Volleyball (LOVB) and the Pro Volleyball Federation (PVF) — are in the works.

DeBoer acknowledges that the fight for pro women’s sports is different than the fight for equality in college athletics. That’s largely because, unlike in college sports, there is no legislation that mandates equal opportunity for women’s sports in the free market.

“Title IX was part of the [federal] education amendments and required access to opportunities for females, and the market has always been very much behind and different from the regulations for opportunity,” DeBoer explained.

However, recent data has DeBoer feeling optimistic. The 2023 women’s college basketball national championship game between LSU and Iowa drew a record 9.9 million viewers across ABC and the ESPN networks. WNBA viewership is on the rise. In 2022, the National Women’s Soccer League signed a new collective bargaining agreement that substantially increased player salaries.

“So far, the indicators are positive — that if you show women’s sports, people will watch,” DeBoer said.

Looking back on the 51 years since the passage of Title IX, two things are clear: The landscape for women’s sports has changed drastically, and Kathy DeBoer has played a significant role in that change through her tireless fight and advocacy.


To learn more about women’s basketball history, check out all our WBL coverage at The Next.

Written by Tee Baker

Tee has been a contributor to The Next since March Madness 2021 and is currently a contributing editor, BIG EAST beat reporter and curator of historical deep dives.

1 Comment

  1. Gerry Booker on September 4, 2023 at 11:01 pm

    Thank you Kathy DeBoer for being a “Positive Trouble Maker”. You are truly a Title IX Trail Blazer. I did not know of your story while playing with you in Milwaukee during our inaugural season with the Milwaukee Does. I am now reading your story forty five years later. You always gave your all when we were playing basketball for the Does. It was a pleasure playing with you! We will always be known as Trail Blazers for the many contributions we made to professional basketball, in particular the contributions we made to women’s basketball. June 9th 2018, forty years after our inaugural season 1978, we were finally recognized and inducted to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Keep on being a “Positive Trouble Maker” in the Sports World. Thank you.
    Gerry Booker Hall OF Fame Sister Forever

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