Matthew Slater
Matthew Slater / Associated Press

New England Patriots captain Matthew Slater , who has tied Steve Tasker for most career Pro Bowl berths by a special-teams player with seven, spoke passionately Tuesday about the importance of keeping the kickoff in football, saying that if it is eliminated because of safety concerns it would be “tragic.”

Slater, entering his 11th NFL season, added that the careers of many players would be affected negatively.

“You take away this play from football, you’re changing the fabric of the game,”

he said Tuesday after the second day of the Patriots’ voluntary offseason program.

“It really makes me ask the question, ‘Where do you go from here? What would happen next?’ I don’t know the answer to that. I look at a number of plays. I look at a goal-line stand. I look at a third-and-one. Think about the collisions that are happening there. Those [are] maybe deemed unsafe by some people. “So if you make a drastic change such as this, what’s next? What happens? The reality is this is football. This is a contact sport. This is a violent sport. All of us that are playing the game understand that there are inherent risks that come along with playing the game. If you’re not OK with those risks, I respect that, and maybe you should think about doing something else. But if we feel like we need to take away this play from the game to make the game safer, then where does that stop?”
Kickoff returns are being closely scrutinized in both the professional and college ranks. On Friday, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a rule change that will result in a fair catch on a kickoff inside the 25-yard line being a touchback.

Meanwhile, at March’s NFL annual meeting, Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said the league’s medical department presented statistics showing that concussions are five times as likely on kickoffs as an average play. Murphy, who is a member of the NFL’s competition committee, told a small group of reporters the league planned to bring together head coaches and special-teams coordinators to discuss the issue.

Murphy said the message would be, “If you don’t make changes to make it safer, we’re going to do away with it. It’s that serious. It’s by far the most dangerous play in the game.”

Slater, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, described the focus on the kickoff as “disheartening.” “The game has changed so much in my lifetime since my father played to now, and I understand. I’m a player rep. No one cares more about player health and safety than the players, than the men that are out there on the field putting their bodies on the line,” he said. “That being said, we understand that we’re playing football. To take away the kickoff, I really think it would be tragic. You’re changing the fabric of the game that we all love to cover, report on, play, coach. I think it’s very disheartening to continue to have this brought up.

“I understand people are concerned with the long-term health and safety of the players, but as I said, no one is more concerned than the men out there actually doing it. If we’re OK doing it, I don’t understand why we have to continue to look for alternatives, continue to push.

“I feel strongly about it and would love to continue that dialogue throughout the course of the season.”