I call ’em as I see ’em.

I got a lot of comments — 41 in all via various media — about my last column [Team Players and Spectators, March 5] in which I praised the bar owners who contributed money to support the St. Patrick Day Parade and criticized those who didn’t. 

About half the comments were critical of the column and the other half were supportive. I decided I should respond to the mixed reviews by describing what I think the role of a columnist should be. 

I think editorial writers and columnists have two legitimate roles they can play. One is to be a player and the other is to be a referee. Players focus on winning the game, whereas referees are concerned with the game being played fairly. Columnists who are players try to win you over to their point of view. Those who write as referees call fouls when, in their judgment, participants are not playing by the rules regardless of the team they’re playing for.

We will judge the referees in the NCAA basketball tournament going on right now on how even-handed and consistent they are and whether or not they get in the right position on the court to make the appropriate calls. We also expect them to reverse bad calls when, on review, the replay from different angles reveals that they missed one.

In the column that ran three weeks ago, I was trying to be a referee, not a player. For the sake of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that I’m a board member of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, but I honestly don’t think I was trying to grind axes or shame anyone on their behalf. Rather, I saw players not following “the rules,” blew my journalistic whistle and called a foul.

Now here’s the problem: The guys in the black-and-white-striped shirts on the basketball courts know what the rules are. They are printed in a booklet published by the NCAA, and all the teams trying to work their way up the brackets have agreed to let those rules determine what behavior on the court is fair play and what should be called a foul.

But when I call a foul in my attempt to act as a referee in the games we play here in Forest Park, I’m open to charges like “that’s just your opinion” or “who are you to tell me how to live,” because we have bought into this idea that ethical standards are culturally relative and therefore we won’t and never will be able to compile a moral handbook in the form of a cultural consensus to consult. 

My dialogue with Thai Buddhism and the amazing variety of religious traditions in our area refutes that point of view. It reveals that while the different religions differ widely in terms of doctrine, there is a striking consensus among them regarding the ethical “rules” which should govern how we humans should play the game of life.

“Ah,” you may protest, “you might be able to find a consensus in terms of abstract principles, but the devil is always in the details. The challenge is to implement those principles in this concrete world where one size does not fit all.”

One size certainly does not fit all, not perfectly, but one ethical size fits a surprising majority of people well enough. Alterations will always have to be made for exceptions to the rule, but when exceptions become the rule, societies lose the cohesiveness they need to function. 

Years ago I heard Mayor Calderone declare that there comes a time when you have to pull the trigger. I think what he meant was that if you wait until your aim is perfect, you’ll never hit the target because in this reality, the target is always moving. The devil is in the details, but the last time I checked, the devil never saved anyone. We can’t let our fear of stepping on someone’s toes prevent us from trying to take at least a few steps forward. 

The financial meltdown on Wall Street a few years ago showed us what happens when referees are not doing their job. Competiveness easily morphs into an obsession with winning at all costs. The other side of the coin is that incompetent replacement referees make calls that undermine the fair play they were asked to enforce.

So what should we pray for? Acknowledging that we need refs to enforce fair play while at the same time understanding that we’re never going to get ones who get every call right, the best we can hope for is pundits who have exhibited a fair amount of aptitude in observing human behavior, gained a little wisdom from the mistakes they’ve made in life, and show a willingness to consult the replay monitor when there’s a controversial call to be made.

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