EACH TIME a fighter is killed in the ring, there is an outpouring of sympathy for the victim, a short and earnest argument about the ethics of what some have called "the manly art of modified murder" and then a return to business as usual. Even fight fans accept the fact that boxing is the only "sport" in which the objective is to inflict as much physical damage on one's opponent as possible. In fact, that's what fills arenas and gets the crowd to its feet. And when someone is killed in the course of this display of skill, power and endurance, well, accidents happen in every sport, right?

Now the American Medical Association, in its current journal, has forced sports fans to come to terms with more than the occasional death in the ring, although there have been 335 of these in the last 30 years. The doctors have provided evidence of serious brain damage in many fighters simply because they have been hit in the head so often over a period of years. Their information demonstrates that "boxing is deleterious to the human brain" and that "the correlation between cerebral atrophy and the number of bouts is significant." The "punch-drunk" fighter, so often the object of amusement and ridicule, is, of course, suffering from intentionally inflicted brain damage. His slurred speech, strange walk and lack of coordination are the direct result of an accumulation of beatings suffered over many years. These symptoms are specially sad in men who fought their way to the top and were an inspiration to youngsters hoping to achieve wealth and fame in the ring. The exploitation of poor and minority boys in this sport is particularly obnoxious, for even if a very small number rise to the top, they and thousands of others, some of whom do not even make a decent living in the ring, suffer permanent, serious injury.

While the AMA journal editorializes that "boxing should be banned in civilized countries," the association's Council on Scientific Affairs accepts the likelihood that this is not a realistic hope. Instead, the council proposes nine steps that could reduce the incidence of brain damage in the ring. Included are suggestions for a national, computer-based registry of all fights that would include all injuries suffered, mandatory use of safety equipment, not only on the boxer but also on the ring floor and cornerposts and authority for fight physicians to stop contests. A conference of AMA specialists and ringside physicians will consider these proposals next month.

The recommendations seem like small steps, but perhaps they are as much as the public will accept, even in the face of powerful evidence of the harm that is being done. It is as difficult to outlaw boxing as it is to control the possession and use of handguns. Both, nevertheless, remain worthy goals of a civilized society.