"4th and Long": Valor! Victory! Vomit!

"This is a football training camp. I don't wanna hear any of that s--t about a reality show." — Michael Irvin, three-time Super Bowl champ

I hate to break it to him, but "this"—Irvin's new reality competition show 4th and Longis a reality show. In a real football training camp, the players don't live at the stadium, where the locker rooms have been converted into a live-work space. Players aren't eliminated after each practice, following an overly dramatic elimination ceremony that matches the laughable seriousness of America's Next Top Model. And in an actual football training camp, Irvin would probably have on something more practical than a head-to-toe black leather ensemble.

If anything, Irvin should be proud of his reality show, because as a football-themed one, 4th and Long is unusually successful. The pure sports-reality competition has been tried before: In 2005, NBC bowed The Contender, a boxing show from reality-competition pioneer Mark Burnett, and Fox cobbled together The Next Great Champ to run against it. The former performed better than the latter, but neither succeeded by reality standards.

Here's the real hurdle 4th and Long has to overcome: In reality competitions, pure meritocracies are not much fun. As an audience, we love to see the winners chosen based on bizarre, mysterious processes that are confounding, often arbitrary, occasionally maddening, but always fascinating to watch. That's what makes for great TV. In a boxing show, the guy who's best at boxing wins. It has all the appeal of actual boxing, but why wouldn't you just watch actual boxing?

Beyond that, the trouble with a sports-themed reality show is that reality shows get most of their appeal from the friction between the contestants, so producers typically throw character types together to ensure maximum fireworks. The fabulous gay guy ends up rooming with the "traditional values" guy from Iowa City, and then in three weeks' time, they're making out under a pool table. Quelle surprise! But on a show like 4th and Long, in which the contestants are gunning for a spot on the Dallas Cowboys roster, the similarities among them all are accentuated. All 12 would-be Cowboys were promising college players who, for one reason or another, never got a shot at the big time. They have one goal and care little for delving into the personal lives of their competitors. Expect to hear a reality cliché repeated: "I'm not here to make friends."

Still, despite the built-in shortcomings, 4th and Long's premiere showed promise because producers were smart enough to rely on reality-show tropes. The dramatic final elimination came down to three players: one who had eaten too much and sprayed vomit onto the Cotton Bowl field (only one of three vomit shots); one who was felled by a charley horse during a running challenge; and one who simply got beaten up on. ("Is that legal?" he asked, after another player thumped his helmet following a tackle.) As shown in the deliberation between Irvin and coaches Bill Bates and Frank Avezzano, there was a case to be made for all three to go home. Why was one ultimately chosen? It's anyone's guess. In other words, sorry, Mike, but it's a reality show, not a football training camp, and it's a better show for it.