Why Does the Media Treat Anthony Edwards and Cade Cunningham So Differently?

Photo Credit: Erik Williams (USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Edwards is doing something special right now. He has shot 39.8% from three since Nov. 17, 2021. His shooting efficiency was the largest critique of his game coming out of college, and this stretch is giving me hope that he can leave that criticism in the past.

It seems that this year Edwards is finally receiving the respect that he deserves. After an up-and-down rookie season — one in which he took his fair share of lumps — large questions about his game still loomed. As The Ringer’s J. Kyle Mann phrased it in this video, “Was Anthony Edwards Worthy of the No. 1-Overall Pick?”

Worthy is a funny word to use. But thus far in Edwards’ career, he’s had to prove it. He’s had to prove that he should’ve been drafted over LaMelo Ball, prove he can score efficiently, even prove that he loves the game of basketball. There has been a constant current flowing against Ant. Through it all, he has kept his head up, a smile on his face, and done his thing. Right now, he is proving it.

Why so much criticism of Anthony Edwards? He is lauded all the time for his physical gifts. Praised for speed and power, the things his body can do. Though, many people don’t trust his mind, something that Ant has been acutely aware of since entering the league.

“I’m smarter than a lot of people think. I just look like this,” he said.

This is an admission of unassailable truth. In our society that is built on white supremacy, black men, specifically dark-skinned black men, are viewed as unintelligent and less-than — until they prove it.

For black athletes, the focus often becomes purely about the things that they can do with their bodies. We all know the stereotypes. I find it disappointing that the major narrative surrounding Edwards is that he is an unpolished athlete. Yes, he’s got some skill development he needs to do to take his game to the next level. But how about the skill development he’s already done? He’s catapulted himself onto the fast track for stardom in only a season and a half, disregarding the haters along the way. Let’s make no mistake: Anthony Edwards is one of the most promising young players in the league.

This year’s No.1-overall pick, Cade Cunningham, entered the league hailed as a “franchise-changing offensive orchestrator with smooth scoring skills, versatile defense, and a winning mentality” by Kevin O’Connor. Conversely, in O’Connor’s draft guide from 2020, he described Edwards as a “bruising scorer who can create space with his dribble and make tough shots from all over the court, but his decision-making leaves much to be desired.”

The words we use are important. There is not a negative word about Cunningham in O’Connor’s prospect summary. Does Cunningham entirely lack warts to his game? Even LeBron James entered the league with questions about his shooting. Cunningham is “smooth” and he’s a winner. However, Edwards is “bruising” but lacks “decision-making” ability. Here we see again that Edwards’ body is praised while his brain is criticized. We also have here, a connotation of violence. I have to wonder why O’Connor chose to use the word “bruising” rather than “powerful” or “dynamic.”

Now. I’m not here to say that Edwards’ performance in college showed that he was a sure thing. But the difference in the language surrounding the two is curious. Ask yourself, Why is Cunningham so assuredly going to be a star in so many evaluators’ eyes, while Edwards has had to fight so much criticism? This dichotomy between Edwards and Cunningham is an example of colorism. Cunningham has light skin, while Edwards’ skin is dark. These things are subtle but compound to create a culture steeped in racism.

I’m not here to disparage Cade. I’m simply pointing out that he has not reached statistical milestones from an efficiency standpoint that would lead me to believe that he was, without a doubt, “more worthy” of the No. 1-overall pick than Edwards. In fact, Cunningham is being outperformed by two other rookies in his class: Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes.

Here’s how Edwards and Cunningham compare through 31 career games:

Another key difference that needs to be taken into account when comparing Ant and Cunningham is that the latter is currently on a team that has little interest in winning games. The Detroit Pistons are in full rebuild mode and would like to secure the best draft pick that they can.

Last year, the Wolves had a must-win season go awry. Their draft pick belonged to the Golden State Warriors unless it fell in the top three. Flattened lottery odds made the prospect of tanking unpalatable. Not to mention the fact that the Wolves had two All-Stars already on their roster. We can quibble about D’Angelo Russell‘s All-Star injury replacement later. Still, the bottom line is that there was immediate pressure on Edwards to be the type of player who can contribute to winning basketball.

It certainly isn’t fair that much undue criticism has befallen Edwards, but this is the world we live in. Colorism is a nuanced form of racism that happens within and beyond the black community. Whiteness, and one’s proximity to whiteness, are the gold standard in America. The darker your skin, the further you are from whiteness. Proximity matters.

Some, who are unwilling or maybe afraid to see the world for what it is, might point out the fact that LeBron James and Michael Jordan — who are not light-skinned — are perhaps the most revered basketball players of all time. Those who wish to deny the existence of colorism or even racism as it exists today will look to those two players as the ultimate rebuttal against this idea.

Those who are great may transcend the need for proximity to whiteness much like LeBron and MJ. But if greatness is the only thing that can defy the shackles of racism, then we’ve got a serious problem. It’s the classic case of the glass ceiling. The most successful black people in their craft shatter this ceiling and appear to rise above the white supremacy that entraps us all. But they are still black.

The truth is that the denial of colorism is the denial of the degree to which racism and white supremacy grip our nation. Since the moment black Africans were forcibly brought to this country, a preference for light complexions emerged. Many of the light complexions we see today are a direct result of the horrors of slavery. Black slave women were repeatedly forced to engage sexually with their masters or overseers. The lighter-skinned offspring that came from many of these vile acts weren’t just closer to whiteness in skin tone — they were kin.

Uzogara, Lee, Abdou, and Jackson wrote in their “Comparison of Skin Tone Discrimination Among African American Men: 1995 and 2003”:

Lighter-skinned slaves were usually mixed-raced and favored by White slave-owners. These lighter-skinned slaves were frequently fathered by White slave-owners (typically from nonconsensual sexual relations with female slaves) and were, therefore, privileged unlike dark slaves, lighter-skinned slaves were spared physically strenuous, outdoor work and instead held domestic indoor jobs like housekeeping in closer contact to whites.

American society was built on the foundation of slavery. The hate, the atrocities, the pain has never been forgotten. We don’t see as many cruel acts of blatant racism, but slave culture has had a direct influence on the way we live today.

In post-colonial America, colorism continued. The “paper bag test” became common practice for this form of discrimination. The title may be self-evident, but let me explain. Hold up a paper bag to your skin. Are you lighter or darker than that paper bag? This measure was used to perpetuate the further stratification of dark-skinned black people and their fairer-skinned counterparts.

I write this as a mixed man myself. My mother is white and my father is black. My lighter skin tone and my maternal proximity to whiteness have given me opportunities for a higher social status. I recognize this. And I recognize the impact that colorism has on the way that we view the world.

Anthony Edwards will have to battle against colorism throughout his career. He has already proven so many people wrong, and I’ve no doubt he’ll continue to do that as he grows his game. But we all need to understand that the way we speak about him and other dark-skinned NBA players has to buck colorism. We’ve got to praise them for their skill and intelligence, not just their physique. Because let’s not forget, Anthony Edwards knows that he could be the best at anything he puts his mind to.

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