Before Sunday's NFC Championship, many NFL fans knew of Richard Sherman. The Seattle Seahawks' third-year player had made a name for himself as not only one of the best defensive backs in the NFL, but he had also created attention by publicly taunting and mocking opponents.
But Sherman's post-game interview Sunday in front of a nationally televised audience has transformed him from a very good player that many NFL fans were familiar with to a household name.
Ok, maybe household isn't completely accurate, but he -- or more specifically, opinions about him -- certainly took over Twitter.
The people I follow were largely entertained by Sherman's declaration that he is the best cornerback in the NFL (largely true, by the way). However, many were quick to condemn Sherman's antics as arrogant, selfish and ultimately, "classless."
In response to what was swiftly becoming the buzzword to describe Sherman, I tweeted out my opinion: That many athletes with "classy" reputations speak like Sherman did, but they do so in the cocoon of their own locker room and not on live television.
Shortly after I hit 'send' on my tweets, a local newspaper columnist expressed his shock and disdain for my position. Twitter is not the best forum for nuance or the kind of Buckley-versus-Chomsky, tête-à-tête that one would hope to have, and while I understand my experience does not parallel every athlete in every locker room in every sport, I believe the more voices that provide relevant context in our world of increasingly loud "hot takes," the better.
I had absolutely no problem with what Sherman said, and to draw conclusions on his "classiness" is a bit far-fetched. Sherman was confronted with a microphone immediately after he made the biggest play of his career against his team's biggest rival. He was honest, and, with what I have seen and heard while being around soccer players and other pro athletes, Sherman said what many say. He just said it on live television.
That's the difference with this debate about being "classy." The fact is many people don't see every minute of a player's life both inside or outside the locker room. As a conduit from teams and players to fans, the media tries to provide as much context as possible, but they are not there for every moment. But if the media or fans were around in those moments right after a big win over your rival club, they would see how many -- not all, but many -- players talk while the intensity is still high.
"Yeah, I'm glad we beat them, because they were talking a lot of nonsense before the game and during the game. Forget them. And that player who everyone thinks is the best? I shut him down. He didn't do anything."
That is a fit-to-print version of what often gets said in the locker room. But because of the mandated cool-down period MLS and other leagues have, no one sees those moments. Instead we are left with neatly scripted versions of what others expect to be said.
I've seen coaches and players from many teams give the most boring, platitude-filled interviews shortly after losing or winning a big match. That gets them the "classy" label. But it makes me laugh, especially after what was said in the locker room or the tunnel in the heat of the moment.
I've seen players accost players, coaches accost players, and players accost coaches in the tunnel after heated matches. And believe me, the things they yell at each other would be labeled "classless." (My favorite recorded example remains this Roy Keane-Patrick Vieira tunnel spat). Yet when the media arrives in the locker room, what happens when the camera turns on or our recorder starts recording? This: "Yes it was a good match, with a worthy opponent who deserved to win today. Credit to them, they earned it."
But what I think is most important is this: Whether it's Richard Sherman or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or Peyton Manning or Frank Lampard, it's impossible to know how truly "classy" athletes are.
Classiness is surely something to be desired. Players strive to be classy and fans want to support those type of players. But it's impossible to truly know who or what each player is as an athlete or a person just because of what they said in a 10-second soundbyte, and that goes multiple ways.
If someone acts the way they're "supposed" to when the camera is on, it doesn't mean he or she is a great person. It doesn't meant they're not. But if someone isn't buttoned up and goes outside the traditional norms of what many are used to seeing because it's what they've always seen, that doesn't mean they're a bad person or that they should be forever marked as "classless."
While it doesn't fit our condensed 140-character world, ultimately, the reality of sports as a human endeavor means the definition of "classy" will never be black and white.
Clint Irwin is a goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids in MLS. He can be followed on Twitter @ClintIrwin.