For Stern, Goodell and Selig, hot seat has rarely been hotter

A clear sign of trouble in professional sports is when the league commissioners are getting more airtime than the athletes.

When times are good, there is no need to see the guys in suits. Commissioners can generally can stay off-radar until a Super Bowl, World Series or NBA Finals. Then they swagger in to talk about the booming prosperity in their respective leagues.

Clearly, given the Commish Cam coverage of the past week, we're in a three-ring crisis in North American sports.

NFL head Roger Goodell is erecting training-camp barricades for one of his most visible players. MLB boss Bud Selig has showed up in Frisco as a witness to the further desecration of his sport's record book. And the NBA's David Stern is grappling with the fact that one man with a whistle and an alleged gambling problem has shredded the credibility of his game.

(Which pretty much makes NHL head Gary Bettman the summer's big winner. Except nobody in America is watching his sport, and he's been freshly accused of interfering in the sale of the Nashville Predators in order to keep them from moving to Canada -- accusations Bettman denies. Hockey can't even walk through an open door without tripping over its skates.)

Given the backdrop, it's time to examine the current commissioner gut checks, and to assess who has the guts to get his sport back on task.

Toughest spot

1. Stern: Corrupt refs using their power to fix games are definitely on the short list of worst case scenarios in any sport. For a guy with a long track record of having all the answers, Stern didn't have many when he discussed the Tim Donaghy debacle Tuesday. Shows you how vulnerable the sport is to gambling-related corruption. Any sport.

2. Selig: He's the one commissioner getting no help (so far) from any investigative agencies in formalizing a solution to his problem. Lacking a legal hammer (and a positive drug test), Selig must sit back and watch Barry Bonds move past Henry Aaron on the all-time home run list. If Selig is to keep a joyless vigil waiting for the inevitable in San Francisco (does he stand and applaud when No. 756 clears the fence?) at least he's doing it in a great restaurant city.

3. Goodell: There is less of a fundamental credibility crisis attached to the Michael Vick situation than the other two. This is a guy accused of modern-day barbarism -- it's incredibly ugly, far worse than dimwit Clinton Portis might think, but it's not an assault on the sanctity of the game. But Goodell's quickly established track record of proactive -- some might say intrusive -- player discipline puts a marquee figure's career squarely in the commissioner's hands.

Volatility factor

1. Stern: Someone recently likened the Donaghy credibility hit to the blow print journalism sustained in the Jayson Blair fiasco at the New York Times. It's an apt comparison: two easily maligned groups of workers already suspected of routinely falling off the ethical tightropes they walk on a daily basis. Something tells me it's easier to reconstruct a Buddhist sand painting than it will be to reconstruct trust in the impartiality of the officials. And this won't make recruiting the next generation of top-flight refs any easier, either. Who wants a job in which the nicest thing the public says about you is that you're inept, and the worst thing it says is that you're corrupt?

2. Goodell: His league is strong enough to withstand just about anything, but taking out Vick is a much more perilous proposition than slapping two-bit knuckleheads Pacman Jones and Chris Henry. Vick is the face of the franchise in the unofficial African-American capital of the South. He's the most popular athlete in Atlanta, and he's accused of something a good deal less serious than what Ray Lewis faced. Mishandling this situation could cripple the Falcons (wonder how they feel now about letting go of ace backup Matt Schaub?) and create a significant black backlash.

3. Selig: Beyond being criticized in some corners for failing to show the proper respect -- or showing too much respect -- there isn't much in the Bonds conundrum that can blow up on Bud. He's clearly in San Francisco against his will, but part of that is his own inability to react faster and more forcefully when the steroid party was raging unchecked and untested years ago.

Reputation risk

1. Stern: He's right up there with Pete Rozelle on the all-time commissioner list. He was lucky enough to take over when Bird and Magic and then Jordan were lifting the NBA off the endangered list and propelling it into its golden years. And he was good enough to sustain it beyond that with a succession of wise decisions and savvy business moves, from globalization to TV contracts to marketing strategies. But this puts a smudge on the career portrait -- and if any evidence surfaces to suggest that this was more than one crooked ref acting alone, it could crack the gilded frame.

2. Selig: It hasn't been all bad for Bud, but the lowlights are horrific. The great labor disaster of '94 was on his interim-commissioner watch, and it led to permanent divorce from the game for some fans (myself included). The steroid scandal that gave us, by all appearances, the McGwire-Sosa home run mockery of '98 and the Bonds abortion of 2001 -- that was on his watch, too. Now that the final alleged performance-enhanced chicken has come home to roost in the form of Bonds homer No. 756, a dim legacy only gets darker.

3. Goodell: Still very much a work in progress, with many chapters yet to be written. But the early mark of the Goodell commissionership has been a hard line on off-field discipline, and this is by far the biggest case to come across his desk. So far he seems to have the mandate of ownership, which is vital. We'll see whether the popular mandate is still there when the smoke clears over Vick.

Who pulls through strongest

1. Goodell: Owing more to the inherent power and momentum of the league, and the lack of an overall threat to his game. The NFL juggernaut and its leader will carry on.

2. Stern: He has taken the league's success too personally not to throw himself into healing the NBA from this wound. But it won't be easy. (I'll take this opportunity to re-submit my spring suggestion for an all-level basketball officiating summit to candidly discuss the state of the profession. And if ever the public needed to hear from the least-interviewed people in sports, now is the time. We need to hear from the officials and their supervisors. We need to be taken inside the training process, inside how games are called, inside the next-day evaluations -- everything. Reassure us, refs.)

3. Selig: He's never going to be Kenesaw Mountain Landis, or even Happy Chandler. The best Selig can hope for is that his next chapter is better than the one closing right now.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.