These odd couples will keep our attention in 2011

In a collective struggle to understand the coming year, we have chosen to focus on pairs rather than individuals. The five curious couples presented here are meant to prompt a meditation on the rights of millionaires, the role of government, the value of royalty, the desire for an arena, and how to make a big impression in your new job. Happy 2011. We're all in this together.

The Commissioner and the Player

The National Football League is a $9 billion-a-year business that's poised to gum up its mint because the owners and the players can't agree on how to split the riches.

The owners want 18 regular-season games instead of 16 and for the players to take less than their current 59.6-percent share of the total revenues. The players' retort to this point? No way. Talk of a lockout will get way louder after next month's Super Bowl, when there won't be any games to distract fans from this less entertaining reality.

All this matters because the NFL right now is the richest, most popular sports league, ever, and because its season is the country's most-watched television show, by far. This labor stalemate is complicated, with compelling arguments on both sides, but all most fans see is millionaires squabbling with billionaires in the middle of a down economy.

League commissioner Roger Goodell is in charge of what (for better or for worse) is so much a part of the lives of so many Americans. Lots of people have hands in the negotiations, but Goodell is the big boss, and if the NFL messes with its unprecedented perch in sports entertainment history, ultimately it's on him.

The guys with the most to lose, though, are players like the Bucs' Barrett Ruud. The team's best tackler for the past four years would have been a free agent before this season but wasn't because of the labor strife. He signed a one-year contract for a little more than $3 million, which isn't bad, obviously, but almost certainly he would've been able to sign a longer-term, more lucrative deal under normal circumstances. He has lost money and security already, and will lose more the longer this goes on.

"It's a very unlucky time to be a free agent," he said earlier this year.

On NFLPlayers.com, the "Lockout Watch" countdown clock just keeps ticking.

Gov. Outsider and Gov. Insider

The new governors of Florida and California share a bald gauntness, a reputation for personal frugality, and a daunting job description. Each enters office staring at an abysmal budget deficit — Florida's is a projected $3.5 billion, and California's, in keeping with its position as the world's eighth-largest economy, is pegged at a minimum of $25 billion.

But the similarities between the two men end there. On just about every policy initiative you can name, Rick Scott and Jerry Brown espouse philosophies so diametrically opposed that their first terms ought to be used as a curriculum in modern governance.

Brown, 72, won his third term (after a 27-year hiatus) by beating a distaff version of the 58-year-old Scott. Former CEO Meg Whitman was a political novice who spent $141 million of her own money trying to persuade voters that government ought to be run like a business. That very argument carried the day for Scott, who since the election has unveiled a series of ideas that show just how boldly he envisions that transformation.

Let parents decide how to spend money on their child's education, and if that means using tax money to send more students to private school so be it, Scott says. Brown started two charter schools in Oakland, but he doesn't think they're the answer for all educational ills.

Scott has targeted environmental rules that he says inhibit business growth. Brown is just as adamantly pro-environment. "Protecting the environment is essential to our long-term prosperity," he has said.

For Scott, energy independence means looking at offshore drilling. Brown is pegging his job creation plan on a comprehensive renewable energy program that he says will create two to three times as many jobs as the fossil fuels sector and reduce pollution in the process.

One of these philosophies — Brown's visionary government or Scott's wary vision of government — will fare better at overcoming the two state's respective financial messes. Get out your pen and paper. Class is in session.

The Princess to be and the Royal Wanna-be

When the future King of England slid his mother's blue sapphire ring on that finger, the world perked up.

Kate Middleton, or Catherine as she will be called, appeared on the cover of every magazine. Everyone wanted answers. What was her childhood like? How did Prince William pop the question? And what would she wear to her wedding?

Middleton, 28, is really just getting married. But inside the simple act, there is much to dissect. Unlike Diana, she has maturity and life behind her. She is well-educated, wealthy and beautiful. She had her fun, but was never photographed traipsing around a nightclub sans underwear like American socialites.

She is a polished, perfect argument for the meritocracy, a fact that is causing consternation among a hyper-class-conscious citizenry.

In 2011, millions will watch as she becomes the newest cog in a centuries old royal family that costs the British public more than 40 million pounds ($61.5 million) annually. Amid the monarchy's dwindling global relevancy, Middleton provides an injection of good, old-fashioned fantasy princess, albeit one who vows to do her own housekeeping.

We have no royal families stateside, only a fake aristocracy manufactured by pop culture. Kim Kardashian, 30, is the faux princess dominating her family's Hollywood reign. Unlike the classy Middleton, she shot to fame in a classless quintessentially American way — via sex tape.

Everything about Kardashian and her status-obsessed family embodies modern American culture. They star in a popular reality show, Keeping up with the Kardashians. The father was late O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Kardashian. The new stepfather is Olympian Bruce Jenner. One look at the Kardashian family Christmas card crystallizes their image — luxurious gowns, slick suits, marble staircase and plastic boobs.

Kim has turned her inexplicable fame into a multimillion-dollar empire. She owns boutiques, perfume, jewelry and sunless tanner lines. She filmed a workout DVD. She produces television shows. She and her sisters launched a disastrous, fee-laden debit card. She has endorsed weight loss pills, shoes, fast food, candy and face cream.

In 2011, we won't get away from Kim or Kate — or the challenging things they say about our society and what we value.

The Immovable Mayor and the Mover and Shaker

Bill Foster and Charles "Chuck" Sykes are dueling anchors in a tug of war for the future home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

If any news is going to be made in 2011 about whether the club keeps playing ball in the region, it will come from whatever leverage these two favorite sons can muster for their respective sides.

Foster, 47, is the mayor of St. Petersburg who has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't favor talk about the Rays breaking its agreement to play at Tropicana Field through the 2027 season. He threatened legal action against any third-party interference — "tortious" he called it — that would encourage the Rays to leave. Even when club owner Stu Sternberg announced over the summer he would like to look at Tampa for a possible home, Foster didn't relent. Play in Pinellas County, he said, or pay up the millions to break the contract.

As the chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Sykes, 47, is making it abundantly clear that the Rays don't belong to any one city. In December, he announced the chamber would spend 2011 studying baseball stadium financing. As the CEO of Sykes Enterprises, he has the gravitas to challenge the legal authority brandished by Foster.

"This is a big, complicated emotionally charged topic," Sykes says. "It will never be solved unless we can continue to have a conversation."

Sounds good, but according to a St. Petersburg Times/BayNews 9 poll of 400 St. Petersburg residents, Foster received his highest marks for his handling of the Rays situation.

"We're the fourth-largest city in Florida, but we're more like a small town," Foster said. "It's amazing how many people like Stu Sternberg don't understand that. I do. And my first responsibility is to protect the interest of our citizens, and I'm going to do that by holding the Rays to that agreement."

The Diplomat and the Dictator

Chances are good that Hillary Rodham Clinton will trade in her secretary of state title this year. She could decide it's time to stop living out of a suitcase and go live in a house like the one she and her husband own in Chappaqua, N.Y. But the most admired woman in America (take that Oprah, Sarah and Michelle) might just as easily trade her Foggy Bottom address for the biggest office in the five-sided behemoth across the river in Arlington.

Say it out loud: Defense Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. It's not that crazy.

Even Newt Gingrich says she has the chops to be the first woman in the job.

One thing that wouldn't change would be her focus on a certain bellicose hermit state that has been putting the world on edge all year. In March, it was the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, that killed 46 sailors. In late November, it was the shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong, that killed two South Korean marines and two civilians. Few people claim to understand the thinking of Kim Jong Il, the stroke-addled Supreme Leader. But one theory for the unprovoked attacks is that they present the necessary militaristic front during the precarious shift of power from ailing father to son.

Kim Jong Un, reputed to be turning 28 on Jan. 8, is his father's third and youngest son. People know almost nothing about the pudgy-faced heir, except that he may have gone to private school in Switzerland where he liked to trash talk on the basketball court.

He has never served in the military but recently was promoted to four-star general with the title "brilliant comrade general."

There's genuine concern about what he or his father might do to demonstrate that the youngest Kim is in control.

If Secretary Clinton cannot defuse this looming crisis before she leaves State, she may well end up trying to quell it by deploying troops from her new post in the Pentagon.

Michael Kruse, Michael Van Sickler, Stephanie Hayes, Michael C. Bender, Rick Stroud, Stephen F. Holder and Bill Duryea.

These odd couples will keep our attention in 2011 12/31/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 2, 2011 12:14pm]

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