There's been a lot of talk in these NFL playoffs about "class." Well, what the hell is "class," and how does one handle oneself with "class," and what makes one "classless"?
Let's start by turning to the Oxford English Dictionary for answers, pretty much the greatest thing ever invented because it focuses on etymology. The OED has to tell us about the word "class" (this link may or may not be useful, as the OED is available by subscription; if you're on a campus reading this, it should work because your college probably has the subscription).
I suspect the concept of "class" as a form of ethical/respectable behavior seems to derive from the concept of class as social distinction. Class is generally associated with distinctions between and among like things ("classification"), as seen in definitions 1., 2., 3., 4., 5a., 6., and 7.
The second definition of "class" has to do with distinctions in terms of socio-economic groups:
2. a. A division or order of society according to status; a rank or grade of society.
Now common in the phrases higher (upper), middle, lower classes, working classes; which appear to be of modern introduction. Higher and lower orders were formerly used. This appears to be only partly derived from sense 1, and largely from the general sense 6.
b. The system of such divisions of society; rank (esp. high rank), caste. c. the classes: the classes of the community raised above or separated from ‘the masses’ or great body of the people.
Class is in this common sense a matter of economic distinctions and social group definitions.
I have no doubt that definition 5a. comes from the same concept of distinctions:
5. a. A division of things according to grade or quality, as high or low, first, second, etc.
Esp. used for the different grades of accommodation in travelling by railway or steamboat. The phrases high-class, low-class, first-class, second-class, and the like, are common in attrib. use, e.g. ‘high-class goods’,‘second-class passenger’. See HIGH, etc.
And finally definition 5b. gives us a notion of how "class" is used, I think, when Ladanian Tomlinson talks of the Patriots, when commentators talk about a t-shirt reading "Fuck the Eagles," etc.:
b. slang or colloq. Distinction, high quality; no class: of no worth; of low quality, inferior. Also attrib. or quasi-adj.
We can get further help by looking at the definition of "classy":
Of high or superior class, stylish, smart.
Dictionary.com can give us further help on the usage of of "class":
12. excellence; exceptional merit: She's a good performer, but she lacks class.
14. Informal. elegance, grace, or dignity, as in dress and behavior: He may be a slob, but his brother has real class.
Dictionary.com also gives us The American Heritage Dictionary definition. Interesting, the definition we're interested in comes up twice:
2. A division based on quality, rank, or grade, as:
e. Informal Elegance of style, taste, and manner: an actor with class.
3.c. Informal Elegance of style, taste, and manner: an actor with class.
So where are we at? "Class" generally refers to classification, particularly among socio-economic groups. The sense of "class" as ethical/respectable behavior (i.e., winning with class, behaving with class) is a sub-definition that I think is closely related to the socio-economic status. A person of "higher" class would never taunt an opponent after victory--indeed, if you read books like The Three Musketeers or other like books you'll see that those of higher class act according to the rules of chivalry. When an upper-class or aristocratic man is about to fight, he will treat his opponent respectfully, will only engage in a fair fight (a duel), and will likely act with dignity and respect after the duel. A lower-class person might not care about fairness (he might "fight dirty"), and he might be profane or coarse in his language before, during, and after the fight. Look at movies: lower-class characters are often literally dirty, they don't use proper grammar, and when they fight they get particularly emotional and crued (they swear and insult people), while upper-class characters are clean, use proper grammar, and usually fight calmly, coolly, with little coarse language. Michael Parenti explores these these class portrayals in film in his excellent essay "Class and Virtue":
"The squire and his associates dress in fine clothes, speak an educated diction, and drink brandy. Long John and his men dress slovenly, speak in guttural accents, and drink rum. From these indications alone, the viewer knows who are the good guys and who are the bad. Virtue is visually measured by one's approximation to proper class appearances."
Obviously upper-class behavior is perceived and presented as superior to lower-class behavior. Members of lower-classes are often obscene, dirty, and bawdy. An aristocrat will be humble in victory; a peasant will brag and boast.
Nobody believes America is a classless society, but we have at least done away with aristocratic titles and explicit distinctions of merit based on birth (don't even get me started on how much I hate the Queen of England and just about every other European aristocrat). But we are still obsessed with the idea of aristocracy (hence referring to the Kennedys as "Camelot" and arranging activities like a wedding or prom as a "court"). And we still hold many of the old associations about class and behavior: upper-class behavior equals good behavior, lower-class behavior equals bad (or even scary) behavior.
Now, on to sports.
This comes up in a lot of American sportswriting and fandom. Writers and fans like players and teams that win with "class" (i.e., act with the humility and dignity of the upper-class) and frown upon players who are too boastful, who celebrate too loudly or eccentricly, who "show up" opponents, who taunt opponents, or who ham it up over players they've just defeated. Race, of course, is an issue associated with class in this case--some writers and fans seem particularly disturbed by black athletes who boast and celebrate and lack humility in victory (subconsciously, a black athlete behaving this way may stick out to them more than a white athlete behaving this way--I thought it was "classless" for Mike Vrabel to flap his wings like T.O. in the Super Bowl, but I don't know that a lot of people cared). But I'm focusing on the concept of "class" in "class."
When players do celebrate and show up defeated opponents, they are said to be "classless" because they are acting like a lower-class commoner. If the victorious athlete or team were to win with "class," he/they would talk about what a great fight the opponent put up, would calmly and politely shake the opponent's hand, would refrain from excessive celebration, etc. They act like an aristocrat who just won a duel, in other words.
Does Ladanian Tomlinson think all these things when he calls the Patriots classless? Of course not. But Marx teaches us that a distinguishing feature of ideology is that it doesn't appear to be ideology--it becomes so infused and metastasized in a culture that people just accept it as a given (ideology is particularly pernicious in that it is not just the ruling class that accepts the features of the ideology as a given, but members of the oppressed classes accept it as a given as well). The class associations with the concept of class are dug in all over our society, and they are heavily present in sports as well.
A person is "classy" when he/she behaves as an aristocrat would; a person is "classless" when he/she behaves without the dignity of the upper class, and instead acts with the boastfulness of a member of the lower class.