When it comes to the safety of youth and high school athletes, much has been made of the qualifications of their coaches. High school coaches of all sports are now required to complete semi-annual concussion training. Before hiring a coach, school districts do a thorough background check.

As well they should. Certainly at the junior high and high school levels, for at least two hours every day, the adult closest to an athlete is his or her coach.

Except on game day, when that child steps on field, court, or ice.

Then, the nearest supervising adult is the referee or umpire, who — in this age of concern with concussion — should get recognition training every bit as thorough.

What the official sees in those first moments after a hit to the head is key in determining if a concussion has been suffered, especially when all symptoms may have cleared by the time the athlete has reached the sideline.

Nine days ago, the referee saw Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage experience the “fencing response,” when one or both forearms raise rigidly for seconds. Any such observation by an official, including brief loss of consciousness, should be relayed to sideline personnel and rule the athlete out of further play. Any medical evaluation thereafter should be to determine if something more serious than a concussion has occurred.

Unfortunately, according to a study published last month in the Journal of Athletic Training, collegiate football referees have highly variable levels of concussion knowledge. Those better at recognizing concussion — and confident in their ability to do so — are more likely to call an injury timeout and send a player off. They are also more likely to do so if they believe they have the support of coaches and administrators.

If collegiate officials have doubts about their ability to recognize concussion and the support they will receive from the sideline, imagine how high school officials feel.

While there is no shortage of college officials, who are relatively well paid, there is a shortage of officials in multiple sports at the high school level, particularly in football.

If they had more support from coaches and fans, there would probably be more of them.

For the last 23 years around this time, I have promoted the Paul Danko Memorial Scholarship Fund at Purdue Northwest.

I do so because it was just before the start of the Christmas season, on Nov. 18, 1994, during the Munster Basketball O'Rama, that referee Paul Danko collapsed and could not be resuscitated.

Back then, as now, there were too few young former athletes willing to exchange school colors for a referee’s stripes. Consequently, just days after Danko passed away, the fund in his name was started to help those numbers.

The fund is now permanently endowed, and this year, six students interested in becoming referees are benefiting from it.

For more information about becoming an umpire or referee, go to lcaoa.arbitersports.com. Information for Indiana residents is also available at the IHSAA's Web site, ihsaa.org or on the IHSA's ihsa.org in Illinois.

To help the Danko Scholarship Fund continue growing, make your check payable to Purdue Northwest and send it to the Office of Advancement, 318 Lawshe Hall, Purdue Northwest, 2200 169th St., Hammond, IN 46323-2094.

Please note on your check and in a cover letter that the check should be deposited in the "Paul Danko Memorial Scholarship Fund." Your donation is tax deductible.

Next week, I'll write more on the benefits of good officiating.

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John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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