FOXBORO, Mass. — When Bill Belichick was asked about the new kickoff rule that NFL owners approved last week, he declined comment, deferring to statements made by other like-minded coaches like John Harbaugh and Andy Reid.
Matthew Slater voiced his displeasure in a decidedly different way.
After the Patriots left the practice field Wednesday following their third organized team activities practice, Slater was asked for his opinion on the rule change, which will allow teams to automatically start at their own 25-yard line after any kickoff that results in a fair catch or touchback. The NFL claimed the alteration was made with player safety in mind, but New England’s longtime special teams captain believes it’s an example of the league merely trying to appear interested in the health of its players while ignoring other, far more pressing issues.
Here is a transcript of Slater’s response, which lasted nearly five minutes (emphasis added):
“I’ll say this: Obviously, when you ask me that, there’s going to be a reaction that I have that is unique from most players in this league. I do have a bias about this, right? So, we’ll get that out there. It’s my understanding that the powers that be think that this is going to improve player safety and health, and I’m just not convinced that our league is always going to do what’s in the best interest of our players. I understand that we want to reduce head injuries and things of that nature, but we don’t always act as if player health and safety is paramount.
“We can talk about the Thursday night games. That’s an easy one; that’s low-hanging fruit. But we can also talk about the issues that our players experience after they leave the game. Why is it that we have to fight for healthcare beyond five years out of the game? Why is it that when players go to file for benefits in terms of disability, they’re having to jump through hoops nonstop? Why is it that we’re continuing to fight the battle that we’re fighting about grass versus turf? We all know data can be skewed and projected in any way you want to slice it up, whether it’s relative data, absolute data. That’s a whole different conversation.
“But for me, I look at this game, it’s been played for over a hundred years, and it’s clear to me that they’re making an effort that they’re making an effort to eradicate this play (the kickoff). They said they’re making the play safer, but the reality is they haven’t done a single thing to make the play safer. They haven’t changed the rules. They haven’t changed the techniques. There are still going to be collisions that occur if the ball’s not fair-caught.
“Now, I understand there’s some things that are going to have to be sorted out with the rule, and we’ll see how that plays itself out. But I’m a big purist when it comes to the game of football, and when you start tinkering with things that have been in place for over a hundred years — and I’ve gone back and I’ve looked at the rule changes, and some of them have been good. I’ve been a part of eradicating the two-man wedges and things like that. But in this case, I just don’t believe that this is truly in the name of player health and safety.
“What I do believe is we want to portray ourselves a certain way to the public, to you (reporters), that says we care about the players. But I can give you a long list of examples — and I’ve been around this game for almost 40 years — I can give you a long list of examples where the league and the powers that be do not act in the best interest of the players. Why is it that so many of my dad’s (Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater) teammates are in bad shape and looking to the league to help them? If we really cared about player safety and health, let’s look at it on a grand scale. Let’s not take away a play that really doesn’t impact the bottom line for the league. We’re not taking Patrick Mahomes off the field. We’re not taking those guys off the field.
“And I get that, I understand that, and I know that people will look at this and say, what’s the big deal? But I understand for a player like myself, I wouldn’t have had a career, most likely, with this play. … I go back to this: If we’re really concerned about player safety and health, let’s talk about some of the real issues that are going to impact player safety and health. Let’s not talk about a play where over 99% of the time, when the ball’s kicked off, is injury-free. Those are the facts. Those are the stats. You can go look them up yourself. Does that answer your question, how I feel about that?”
The Patriots were one of five NFL teams to vote against the change, which will go into effect this season.