I watched the Kentucky vs. Providence game last Friday evening. Because the action was very physical and intense, the referees had to be on top of their game as much as the players.

What struck me was that the refs, the players and the coaches all seemed to respect each other. They seemed to realize that to play at that high level, they needed each other.

In order to have a great game, you need great players and great referees.

Two reasons: Good referees enable players to go all out. Here’s what I mean. When my friends and I would play basketball outside on Paul Anderson’s driveway, we kind of refereed ourselves. Not only would we quickly reach a consensus about whether a foul was committed but we also did not play with 100% effort. We cared about not hurting each other more than winning the game. 

That restraint was good for our relationships, but it did not promote Final Four excellence. Because we are fallible and mortal humans, we make mistakes, especially when we strive for excellence. Having referees to enforce the rules frees us in a way to compete at the highest levels, to stretch and test the boundaries.

In the Kentucky-Providence game, there were several occasions when players would violently collide with each other. One player would drive toward the basket at full speed and a player on defense would try to prevent him from doing so. Sometimes the refs would call a blocking foul on the defense and sometimes charging on the offense. Trusting the refs to make good calls when collisions happened enabled those magnificent athletes to play with a little more abandon.

But there’s a second reason why good refs are important. Sometimes athletes cheat. Athletes will take performance-enhancing drugs. The Bears linebacker Dick Butkus would famously punch and even bite opposing players in pile-ups!

If you buy my argument that we need referees in order to play in or watch a great game, then the next question is, “How closely should referees call the game?” Should they call a foul every time one player bumps another, or should they let the players play, so the game is not constantly interrupted by free throws and players fouling out of the game before halftime.

In the game of politics, Republicans tend to tell the “referees” to let the players play, to not call so many fouls and thereby squelch the competitive drive. Democrats tend to want the refs to “call ’em like they see ’em.” They argue that good refs both reduce cheating and actually keep the game competitive.

One striking example of what can happen without good referees in real life is the death of over 43,000 human beings in Turkey — in many cases because developers cheated. There were regulations in place to make new construction more earthquake-resistant, but architects and engineers used shortcuts to make more money and the government regulators looked the other way.

I’m on the board of my condominium association — five of us are tasked with making decisions that benefit all 51 owners. We have some “republican” owners who complain that we have too many “rules and regs” and that we enforce them too strictly. We have some “democratic” owners who want to make a rule for every behavior that irritates them.

Thankfully, the vast majority of our residents understand that when 51 owners and their families live in a six-story building where only four single-family homes once stood, rules have to be made and enforced, rules that restrict their freedom to do whatever they want on the one hand, but on the other hand increase their freedom to live in relative peace with their neighbors.

Millions of Trumpers contend that the referees are ruining the game. “Let them play,” is their mantra. Millions of progressives want the refs to call the game more closely. They offer Silicon Valley Bank as exhibit A. They offer as exhibit B building owners who didn’t want to build according to code but now want FEMA funding to rebuild after their homes were destroyed by hurricanes. Exhibit C is the fact that the states with the highest COVID death rates are the ones that had the weakest mask and quarantine mandates and the least compliance with the mandates that were in place.

Mayors and presidents, Cook County judges and Supreme Court justices, village councils and the U.S. Congress rarely get the balance just right, but it becomes fairly easy to see when the refs are calling the game way too loosely or too tightly.

Maybe that’s why I have been impressed with the way the eight candidates running for office in this village are playing the game. So far, I haven’t seen any of them committing any major charging or blocking fouls. Is it possible that the refs — i.e. the citizens who attend council meetings and candidate forums, the Forest Park Review, the Chamber of Commerce, and people on social media — are watching and the candidates know it?