How ESPN America Learned That Israel Existed

If you had a contest like a spelling bee to see who could name all the countries in the world and say where they were, the finalists would probably be a stamp collector and a sports fan.

The stamp collector comes with a fancy title, philatelist, but the advantage would be with the sports fan. He has actually seen places on TV like San Marino where they have a soccer team unlike the stamp collector. He also has probably heard the national anthems of most of the states on the globe; the stamp collector hasn’t.

If the average fan possesses this remarkable store of knowledge on the countries of the world, you can imagine at what level the professional sportswriters are; they would have to be walking encyclopedias, don’t you think?

I did too. That’s why I’m very proud of myself. A simple fan, I managed to reveal to ESPN, the self-proclaimed leading sports channel on all of TV, the name of a state its staff apparently had never heard of. That would be Israel.

It was actually ESPN America, the British-based subsidiary of the parent US company. It happened this way.

In the spring the thoughts of every red-blooded Canadian male, such as myself, turn to just one thing — the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sixteen National Hockey League teams qualify for a two-month gruelling and violent test of will and skill that ends with the captain of the winning team raising the oldest challenge trophy in professional sports.

Once the tournament begins you can’t miss a game, at least when your team remains in it to win it as lesser teams fall by the wayside. For several weeks there are games every night and these become the centre of your universe. Everything else goes by the board. In Canada we call this condition “hockey fever.”

“Hockey fever” knows no national boundaries though. In New Jersey a fan of the Devils, who lost in six games in the finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings, described what happened when he woke up on the morning after the last game. He looked out his window and was appalled to see his lawn had become a thicket of overgrown weeds and his car was covered by layers of dust and dirt. But not all was bad. He went down to breakfast and there was met by a beautiful stranger; she introduced herself as his wife.

For those of us across the pond, in Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, hockey hotbeds, and Slovenia, where a national hero starred for the Kings, and of course Israel, things are even more difficult. All the games except on weekends start in the middle of the night our time. Sleep becomes a catch-as-catch-can thing and you eventually end up walking around during the day asleep on your feet.

NHL coverage in Israel is excellent. Fox Sports broadcasts at least five games a week on TV during the regular season and if you don’t get what you want, there’s always free and unlimited live streaming on the Internet. Fox Sports will repeat the game twice during the day. This is okay for the regular season or if you want to see a game secondary to you during the playoffs, but when it’s your team with its fate on the line, you’ve got to see it live in the middle of the night; you are not going to sleep anyway overwhelmed with excitement.

Here’s where ESPN America enters the picture. ESPN, the parent company in the US, has been out of hockey for nearly a decade. The NHL rights there are held by NBC Sports. But ESPN America broadcasts games to Europe and other countries around the globe. ESPN in Israel receives most of its programming from the parent company but every now and then during the regular season it will broadcast an NHL game. This feed has to originate at ESPN America.

A few days before the playoffs were to begin I caught an ad on ESPN in Israel that it would be showing NHL post-season games. My team is the New York Rangers who would in the end make it to the final four only to be dismissed by their cross-Hudson rivals, the Devils. When I saw the ad I said I’d better check ESPN America’s schedule so I can plan where I would watch the opening Rangers games, there, on Fox Sports or live streaming.

I went up to the ESPN America site, pressed “schedule” and got a drop-down list of countries. There were nearly 70 countries recorded there in alphabetical order including such micro states as Andorra and Liechtenstein. But at Ireland the list jumped to Italy. Missing was Israel.

In Israel ESPN was advertising hockey broadcasts but at ESPN America they were telling me that I must have imagined the whole thing, my country does not even exist.

ESPN America is a news operation supposedly preparing to cover the Olympics hosted by their country open to all the states in the world. Is it possible under these circumstances ESPN America assembled employees so abysmally ignorant that they don’t know the name of the state whose athletes were attacked at the 1972 Olympics? The next bit of evidence proved this could not be the case. In their list of “countries” was inscribed “Palestine.” This is not a country and never has been. Whether “Palestine” even has a cable system that shows ESPN is unlikely.

It was obvious that ESPN America was indulging itself in classic anti-Semitism; the paradigm is as old as the hills. Israel fought three losing wars against Rome at a vast cost in lives on both sides. For 25 years after the first war in which the Temple was destroyed, Rome issued coins in which it trumpeted in effect that Judea was no more and never would return. A new generation of Jews then arose and the Romans found themselves in a war called the Kitos much bigger than the first, which convulsed large areas of the empire. Later another generation arose under Bar-Kokhba and fought still another war which required the hard-pressed Romans to bring in troops from as far away as Britain and use sailors on land in order to prevail. At that point with Judea literally destroyed Hadrian, the Roman leader, decided to rename the country. He chose an old obscure name still attaching to a small coastal area, Philistina. Ever since then it has been a catechism among anti-Semites that the Jewish state is no more and never would return and therefore the true name of the place is the one Hadrian gave it, Philistina or as it is slurred today, Palestine. If there is a country in that geographical patch, it has to be called that.

I sent off a blistering e-mail to ESPN America informing them that they had been caught out in flagrante delicto in the language of the archetype of engaging in the crassest form of anti-Semitism. I then went up on some forums to sound the alarm. ESPN after all is one of the world’s largest news operations; they couldn’t be allowed to get away with this. Protests began streaming out.

After a few days I wanted to check whether they had fixed the list but when I tried to access ESPN America my computer went into an infinite loop. No doubt this was caused by sun spots. But the games were about to begin. Attention to the weightier matters in life was suspended until further notice.

This week I went back. Sure enough there was Israel in its appointed place between Ireland and Italy. The “country of Palestine” has now been downgraded to its proper status, “Palestinian Territories.” Case closed.

The moral of the story is this. If by some chance you happen to come across a spelling bee contest involving names of countries and the contestants are a philatelist and an ESPN sportswriter, just to be on the safe side, bet on the philatelist.














About the Author
Dov Ivry is from the Maritimes in Canada, born in Nova Scotia, raised in New Brunswick. He worked as a journalist there for 20 years with a one-year stop at the Gazette in Montreal. He's been hanging out in Israel for 36 years, doing this and that, and managed to produce 66 books.