BOULDER, Colo. — Blaine Gabbert’s right ankle is getting healthier. Gabbert had 192 passing yards and two touchdowns in Missouri’s 36-17 win against Colorado Saturday.
Signs remain that Gabbert is still injured, if only slightly. He still isn’t running the ball as much as he did before he got hurt in the Tigers’ 27-12 loss to Nebraska. He had six carries Saturday for 32 yards. After a rare quarterback keeper Saturday, Gabbert hobbled back to the line of scrimmage to set up the team’s next play. After a sack, he slowly walked back to the line of scrimmage for the next play.
Other plays showed the improvement in his condition. After throwing an interception to Benjamin Burney, Gabbert chased after Burney. He caught up to him, but was unable to bring the player down. After the play, Gabbert didn’t seem to be hobbling on the ankle at all.
“(I’m) getting healthy again,” Gabbert said. “I’ve been feeling a lot better than I have been.”
Throughout the injury ordeal, Gabbert and coach Gary Pinkel have insisted the quarterback is fine. Gabbert was helped off the field Oct. 24 against Texas. After the game, Pinkel said Gabbert could have come back in if the score had been closer.
The following Monday, Pinkel said Gabbert was “OK,” later in the Texas game and could have gone back in. Shortly after Pinkel spoke, Gabbert was in the interview room wearing a cast on the ankle.
James Thomas has a unique perspective on why Gabbert and Pinkel would give that response. Thomas was a member of the Missouri football team in 2001 and 2002.
He is a doctoral student in sociology at Missouri. He taught Sociology of Sport for three semesters, a class at MU that looks at social issues in sports and how athletes relate to one another and to the culture around them.
“We can’t necessarily assume that, just because he says, ‘I’m fine,’ that he is,” Thomas said. “But we also can’t assume that, you don’t want to take the position that he doesn’t know his own body. You just want to make sure that you articulate that, one of the ways we can understand this is that he might not be able to express the pain that he’s in, because of his relationship to football and his relationship to the institution.”
Thomas said other members of a team play a role in a player’s answers to questions about injuries.
“He’s got training staff, he’s got his position coaches, he’s got other players,” Thomas said. “They’re also products, they also exist within this culture. So it’s not as if this culture is simply just formed from the top down. But it’s formed by everybody that’s around him as well.”
This leads to a system where the conduct of other players impacts a player’s behavior.
“He might see other players that are nursing through bruises and bumps,” Thomas said. “But if they’re also being told to play through pain, and they’re playing through pain, even though it might be more than be pain, it might be actually an injury, he is less likely to acknowledge that he’s injured. Because he needs to be a part of this impression that the team is kind of creating that part of being a good football player is playing when hurt.”
Other activities outside of sports create similar situations.
“The same reason that a lot of professors aren’t interested in a lot of students’ reasons for why, maybe, they missed a class,” Thomas said. “‘Do you have the sniffles or are you sick?’ is another way to think about that. But that’s also a product of a larger cultural system.”
While Thomas said of much of Gabbert’s pressure to not acknowledge pain comes from within the team, many of Pinkel’s pressures come from outside parties.
“Being a head coach goes way beyond just simply X’s and O’s, especially now,” Thomas said. “A perfect example of that are those e-mails, those mass-generated kind of template e-mails that we get from Pinkel, the student body and the faculty get, saying ‘We appreciated you coming out for X whatever game it was, we want to continue to see you come.’ It’s always his signature. I doubt that he writes those e-mails. And even if he does, that actually might even prove the point even more. His job is beyond just X’s and O’s, he has to connect to the fan base.”
Connecting to the fan base includes projecting an image to fans that the team is on track to win.
“One of the ways they recognize when a team is not good or when they might lose interest is when their players are hurt,” he said. “So it’s very important that we at least give the perception that ‘He’s fine, he’s OK, he’s good to go. He is going to play. Because, for right now, for all intents and purposes, he is the face of the team.”
Thomas said the issue is intensified by the dismissal of Blaine Dalton earlier this season. Dalton was a highly recruited quarterback from Blue Springs South High School. With Dalton gone, Gabbert’s backup is Jimmy Costello, a quarterback from Liberty who came to Missouri as a walk-on.
“We don’t really necessarily have a backup that our fan base is familiar with, so it would be very, very detrimental,” Thomas said. “From the team’s perspective it would be very detrimental to acknowledge that your quarterback is hurt because the fan base knows that you don’t have a backup.”
All of those factors, Thomas said, put Pinkel in a position where could he not admit a Gabbert injury.
“Putting in a backup quarterback that nobody knows is giving the impression that we’re going to go ahead and chalk this season up as a loss,” Thomas said. “And as a coach, he can’t do that. He’s got too much pressure.”
Thomas said the pressures Pinkel faces from external parties come to affect the pressure Gabbert faces internally.
“Gabbert is probably dealing with the effects of Pinkel managing those public relations,” he said. “He’s probably dealing with a lot of those effects internally by the ways in which that culture is being fostered with the team.”