FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — New England Patriots captain Matthew Slater, whose 10 Pro Bowl berths is an NFL record for a special teams player, sharply criticized the league for last week’s rule change that allows fair catches on kickoffs for the 2023 season.
The NFL has cited player safety as a primary reason for the change, which Slater questioned after the Patriots’ practice Wednesday.
“I just don’t believe this is truly in the name of player health and safety. What I do believe is, ‘We [the NFL] want to portray ourselves a certain way to the public that says we care about the players,'” said Slater, the 37-year-old son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater.
“But I can give you a long list of examples where the league and powers that be do not act in the best interest of the players.”
Slater referenced adding Thursday night football, choosing synthetic turf over natural grass fields, retirees fighting for health care beyond five years after retirement, and players “having to jump through hoops” for disability benefits among his examples.
“I understand 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,” Slater said. “If we’re really concerned with player safety and health, let’s talk about some of the real issues. Let’s not talk about a play, when [a high percentage of the time] the ball is kicked off, it’s injury-free.”
Slater also acknowledged his personal stake, saying he knows “that people will look at this and say, ‘What’s the big deal?'”
“For a player like myself, I wouldn’t have had a career most likely [without] this play,” he said. “I [also] understand the players that came before me — the [Steve] Taskers, the [Bill] Bateses … — who were able to establish themselves and have careers in this league because of the kicking game.”
For 2023, a fair catch will be placed at the 25-yard line regardless of where it is fielded, a change designed to counteract a recent increase in “pop-up” kickoffs that some teams use to pin the returning team deep in its own territory.
At the NFL’s spring meeting last week, commissioner Roger Goodell addressed detractors of the rule change. The Patriots were one of the teams to vote against the change.
“We have different viewpoints in the league. This is not the first time,” Goodell said. “The data is very clear about the higher rate of injury on that play. We’ve been talking about it for several years. We have not made a lot of progress on this play. There will be more work to be done about how we continue to evolve going forward: Can we continue to keep this play in an exciting way, but more importantly, a safe way?”
Slater questioned the NFL’s interpretation.
“We all know data can be skewed and projected in any way you want to slice it up,” he said. “It’s clear to me that they’re making an effort to eradicate this play.”