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Matthew Slater blasts NFL's new fair catch rule, tells league to focus on "real" player safety issues

FOXBORO -- In an effort to improve player safety, the NFL announced a new rule for kickoffs that will go into effect for the 2023 season. But not everyone is convinced that improving player safety is really at the forefront of the NFL's mind with this change.

Just ask Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater.

The new rule will have any fair catch placed at the 25-yard-line, an incentive for players to just fair catch the ball rather than try to run upfield while many other players are running downfield right at them. It should cut down on special teams collisions and the NFL said it should cut down the concussion rate on kickoffs by 15 percent. 

Slater, who is a 10-time Pro Bowler during his 15-year career as a special teams ace on the Patriots, isn't convinced. Asked how he feels about the new rule following Wednesday's OTA session in Foxboro, Slater made it clear that he believes the NFL is trying to eradicate the kickoff entirely. He also thinks the NFL should focus on some real issues regarding player health and safety, which he detailed on Wednesday.

Slater spoke about his feelings for nearly four straight minutes after Wednesday's practice:

"There is going to be a reaction that I have that is unique from most players in this league. I do have a bias, so let's get this out there.

"It is my understanding that the powers that be think this is going to improve player safety and health, and I'm not convinced that our league is always going to do what is in the best interest of its players. I understand that we always want to reduce head injuries and things of that nature. But we don't always act as if player safety and health is paramount.

"We can talk about the Thursday night games, that is an easy one. That is low-hanging fruit. But we can also talk about the issues our players experience once they leave the game. Why is it that we have to fight for healthcare beyond five years out of the game? Why is it when players go to file for benefits in terms of disability, they have to jump through hoops non-stop? Why is it that we are continuing to fight the battle were fighting about grass vs. turf.

"We know data can be skewed and projected in any way that you want to slice it up, whether it's relative data or absolute data. That is a whole different conversation. But for me, I look at this game, which has been played for over 100 years, and it's clear to me they are making an effort to eradicate this play. They say they are making the play safer, but the reality is they have 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 isn't fair caught.

"I understand there are 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 for the game of football, and when you start tinkering with things that have been in place for over 100 years …  and I've gone back and looked at rule changes and some of them have been good. I've been part of eradicating the two-man wedges and things like that. But in this case, I don't truly believe this is in the name of player health and safety.

"What I do believe is we want to portray ourselves a certain way to the public, you guys, 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 --  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 teammates are in bad shape and looking to  the league to help them? If we really care about player safety and health, let's look at it on the 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 or taking those guys off the field. And I understand that. People will look at it and say, 'What's the big deal?'

"But for a player like myself, I wouldn't have a career, most likely, with this play. And I understand the players that came before me – the [Steve] Taskers, the [Michael] Bates, the Limousine Woody's, who played with my dad – who were able to establish themselves in the kicking game and have a career because of the kicking game.

"I go back to this. If we're really concerned about player safety and health, lets talk some of the real issues that are going to impact player safety and health. Let's not talk about a play where over 99 percent of the time when the ball is kicked off, it's injury free. Those are the stats.

"Does that answer your question, how I feel about that?"

It certainly does, Matthew. It certainly does.

Patriots players always listen when Matthew Slater has something to say on the field or in the locker room. Now we'll see if the NFL does the same.

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