Commentary

Ben Roethlisberger reps' quandary

Christian firm's top client hasn't lived up to core values, but they're keeping him

Updated: May 1, 2010, 9:36 AM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com


"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." That fairly popular scripture from the Bible can be found in the book of Luke, chapter 12, verse 48.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger Steelers Style Fashion Show Benefit
Michael Fabus/Getty ImagesIn 2007, Ben Roethlisberger was modeling behavior more becoming to the Rep 1 image at a charity event in Pittsburgh.

It also can be found on the Web page of the Rep 1 Foundation, an arm of the California-based sports agency by the same name. While being a Christian is not a requirement to work for or be represented by Rep 1, it's obvious faith is an important aspect of the company.

They have a mission project to Nigeria with Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, which Bruce Tollner, one of the firm's co-founders, attends with his family. His cousin and fellow founder, Ryan Tollner, is a former Cal quarterback who worked with Athletes in Action, an organization that uses sports as a platform to spread the gospel.

Because of their desire to not only be positive role models themselves, but also to have a roster of athletes who value the same principles, they are very selective in whom they recruit and whom they sign to join and represent the Rep 1 family. Because of this, they are not very large and truthfully have only one client of note: Ben Roethlisberger.

Yep, that one.

And who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?

"We believe whole-heartedly Ben did not do what he has been accused of, in either case," Ryan Tollner said. "We're not defending how Ben reached this predicament, and neither is he. We're also not judging him. The DA in Milledgeville announced there were no facts to support a criminal act, but recommended that Ben grow up. I can attest to Ben's determination to wrap this all into a positive turning point in his life."

Ooof.

For all of the grief the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback has brought to the NFL, the Steelers, the fans and his family, it's the Tollners who quietly must feel sucker-punched.

They are the ones who began recruiting Roethlisberger as a client before the NFL draft, Super Bowl wins and $102 million contract. They were drawn to Roethlisberger's heart, his solid upbringing and character as much as his talent. Back in the day, he exemplified everything they worked so tirelessly over the past four years to establish -- a company that reflected their Christian values -- and now in many ways, the face of their organization is projecting something totally different. He's become -- at least in the public eye -- the kind of player they have always avoided.

And therein lies the quandary for Rep 1.

Rep 1 Sports Foundation
rep1sportsfoundation.orgRep 1's logo clearly demonstrates its focus on faith and God.

On the one hand their top client puts food on the table for a lot of people. On the other, their top client is, at the very least, a notorious partier with a pair of sexual assault allegations hanging around his neck. It's important to point out that despite all of the negative press surrounding Roethlisberger these days, he's never been arrested. Then again, religious faith isn't about what one can do legally, but what one should be doing morally. Every sports agency encourages its athletes to be positive role models and guides them down the road of volunteerism, but most do not promote their religious leanings as prominently as the Tollners do on their company's website.

Faith is not just a passing fancy but something that is important to them. So their beliefs raise questions about what they want to be associated with and how much of Roethlisberger's status plays into that decision. Not to judge him or anyone else -- that's for God to do -- but to discern. If the Steelers trade Big Ben, the team will at least get players in return. If Rep 1 parts ways with him because he keeps behaving un-Christian-like, well they get nothing but peace of mind -- maybe.

I know I would have trouble sleeping at night if I gave up my golden goose, which may or may not explain why the Tollners are determined to be there for Roethlisberger now more than ever.

"Wouldn't you fight for someone you cared about who was in that position?" Ryan Tollner asked. Yeah, I would. And one certainly shouldn't turn one's back on people when things get difficult. But I can't help but wonder how much fight there would be if it was one of the lesser-known, lesser-paid clients like Mark Brunell, Javon Ringer or Leonard Davis. Everyone knows celebrities get special treatment, but, I wonder, where does a man of faith draw the line? The agent who only cares about making deals is influenced differently than one who claims his primary goal is to be a positive contributor to society.

Like the Tollners, I am a Christian, and so I am always fascinated by how people in their situation navigate choppy waters with their faith intact. After all, we can say all of the right things in public, but God knows our hearts. He knows the real motives behind the decisions we make and the true feelings we have about those decisions.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicPittsburgh has become less welcoming of Ben Roethlisberger in the past month.

Roethlisberger obviously has gotten caught up in counterproductive behavior and is trying to find his way out, but he's not the only one forced to do a spiritual gut-check here. The Tollners are also being tested. It's a lot easier to tell a potential client a firm stands for family and strong values when everyone on the roster is an angel. But one earns one's stripes when one of those clients isn't walking the company line.

"We have a responsibility to Ben and every one of our clients to be with them in tough times as well as the good, and we've always believed in Ben's core value system and we still do," Ryan Tollner said. "We believe he's a role model, that he's done a lot of great things since being in the NFL, and we're going to help him through this so he can continue to do great things on and off the field."

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required. At first glance it appears the scripture is there for the athletes on Rep 1's roster, but maybe it's a reminder for the Tollners themselves. Having a client like Roethlisberger is a huge plus for a lot of reasons. But as of late, much has been required.

That's what happens when people hitch their wagon to the whims of a 20-something: They have little control over the direction they're going. The only thing they can control is how long they're willing to go for the ride. As of now, the Tollners are holding on tight.

For how long, God only knows.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

MORE COMMENTARY »

LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine

ALSO SEE