The Sportswriter Who Left Her Job After Finding A Million DollarsS

You may remember Selena Roberts from her days at The New York Times, where she became notorious for her crusading columns about the Duke lacrosse rape case. Or maybe you know her from her stint as a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, where she was part of the rotation that replaced Rick Reilly in the magazine's then-storied back page. In 2009, Roberts and a colleague broke the story that Alex Rodriguez had tested positive for steroids in 2003. Sports Illustrated's managing editor at the time, Terry McDonell, called it the "biggest news break" in his tenure at the magazine.

And then Roberts sort of disappeared. After the steroid scoop, she wrote a book about A-Rod that was subjected to a nasty and suspiciously well-orchestrated smear campaign. She finished up her SI contract and left at the end of 2011 because, she said at the time, "At some point, you get tired of your own voice." There were some vague plans about starting a sports app.

She's popped up a couple times since—most recently for a story on her own startup website about a kinda-maybe scandal at Auburn—but whenever her name has resurfaced, she has been described as "former Sports Illustrated and New York Times writer Selena Roberts." How did someone so firmly ensconced in the media establishment so quickly fade away? What exactly happened to Selena Roberts?

Here's what happened: In September 2010, about a year before Roberts would leave Sports Illustrated, her mother, Robbie Elizabeth Roberts, died. Roberts began cleaning up her mother's modest house in Arizona a few hours later.

"My mom lived a very austere life and did not make that much money," Roberts told me. Robbie had been a teacher with a taste for numbers. She'd also worked in Florida as a health care policy analyst for the state, and according to her obituary she was a licensed real estate broker as well. "I called her frugal and she laughed at me a few times because she said she was thrifty, not frugal."

While combing through her mom's possessions, Roberts found a strange-looking booklet. She had never seen it before. On the cover, it read: "IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. FOR SELENA AND SHAWN." (Shawn is Roberts's brother.)

Inside she found millions of dollars. Not literally—"stocks and bonds, and some real estate," according to Roberts. "She made some good decisions I wasn't aware of," she said, laughing.

How much money was it, exactly? I'd heard it was several million dollars. Roberts wouldn't say. "It was seven figures, yeah," she said.

I pushed my luck and asked if she could give me an idea where the inheritance fell on a scale from $1 million to $9.9 million.

"I just can't," Roberts said. "She was very private. Right now, she's probably not thrilled that anybody knows so I'm going to be mindful of her personality and leave it at that."

How much of a surprise was it to find her mother had such a fat portfolio of investments?

"Was I surprised? Absolutely, yes."

Was her mother oblivious to it?

"I have no doubt that she was very aware," she said. "It's not like it snuck up on her. The spending part was not the joy; the joy was watching it grow and doing the math on it."

Roberts wasn't exactly hurting for money. Her contract at SI netted her $400,000 a year. Maybe that explains why she said her mother's fortune was "not change-your-life money, but it did help my life."

"Remember, at the time, I was very lucky that I had done pretty well in my jobs and writing books and working for SI, so it's not like when I was growing up—I grew up in a pretty modest household," she said. "So it wouldn’t have been where you think, 'Oh my gosh, this is more money than I could have ever dreamed of.' I was doing fine. It's not like I was on the street or something and found it."

But it was enough to make her think about her career. Why keep up the usual sportswriting grind, after all? Roberts decided she wanted to go into business for herself.

"There are some liquidation issues and stuff like that you have to go through," she said, explaining her exit. "It’s not an overnight thing. Nor did I feel that way about it. I felt like, 'Well I have an opportunity to do something with it that I wouldn’t be able to do without it.'"

The unexpected inheritance spelled the end of Selena Roberts, the working writer. Enter: Selena Roberts, businesswoman and entrepreneur. She has her own website: Roopstigo.com, named for her deceased golden retriever, Roops. She calls herself founder and chief executive officer.

"I would not be doing this without my mom's generosity, no doubt about it," she said.

"This certainly did help me start this. It’s not going to help me finish it because it obviously takes a lot of money to do this," she said, laughing. "I was very aware that I had an opportunity to at least put the seed money down and get the thing started."

When Roberts left SI, she said she was working on an app. Eighteen months later, it's a website and an app. I admitted to her I didn't quite get it. The site is something of a mess. It's a hash of video, animation, syndicated newspaper stories, original essays—the great Pat Jordan is a contributor—and Roberts's own reportage, without a unifying sensibility to tie everything together. She said it's getting there. Here's her elevator pitch: She wants to produce and post short films about sports.

"As we grow, that volume will increase," she said. "And our delivery of that will be become much more regular. We have to get to that point. We're nine months old right now. As we pick up steam—and as we get through a lot of just how are things going to be produced, and timing—and as we expand and grow in different ways with revenue streams, I think we'll get to a point where we would like to produce regular programming every single day. That would be the ultimate goal. To have an offering out there on a multimedia platform that presents programming that ESPN and the sports networks don't do."

She's working a lot harder now: "It's not a break! I don't sleep. Believe me, I slept more before! There’s always something to be mindful of."

She said she's going through a "capital raise" for her site now. At one point, I told her she sounded like a businesswoman. Selena Roberts the journalist is dead.

"Let’s hope not, god," she said. "I think once we grow, the idea is to go back to what I do and what I love to do. That's the writing and the reporting and getting out there and looking for great stories and trying to bring those home for folks. Some may be in video form now. That’s what I'll go back to once we get to a healthy place and a growth place that enables that."

For now, the inheritance on which the site has been built remains a mystery. Why'd her mother keep the money a secret?

"I was surprised she had done as well as she did," Roberts told me. "It's a pretty cool thing that she was very generous with a lot of people that I didn't know throughout her life. That was one of the things that I found going through that book. She gave to a lot of causes anonymously. I'm really proud of the person she was. I wish I knew a little bit more about it when it was going on."