DOCTORS know what boxing does to the human brain. They even have a name for the chronic disease suffered by many boxers: dementia pugilistica. For the last couple of years they have been making an organized effort, through the American Medical Association and its journal, to publicize information about brain damage and to mobilize opinion against the public spectacles some call "sport." Last week the AMA House of Delegates adopted a resolution that is the organization's strongest statement to date. The doctors not only urge the elimination of both amateur and professional boxing, they are organizing to assist state medical societies to lobby to outlaw boxing in their jurisdictions.

Each year about a dozen men die in the ring. But all boxers take blows that, according to neurologists, "cause the soft brain to glide and swirl within the skull, tearing vessels and nerve fibers." Over time, this kind of battering takes a predictable toll. New York doctors studied a carefully chosen group of active and retired fighters, all of whom had responsible jobs, secondary or college educations and no history of substance abuse. Nevertheless, 87 percent of the sample had definite evidence of brain damage, and all had abnormal results on at least one of the psychoneurological tests.

Columnist Carl T. Rowan made the point on the opposite page Saturday that other sports and occupations are dangerous, but none of the activities he mentions -- football, coal mining and representing one's country abroad -- has as its primary objective inflicting pain and doing physical damage to an opponent. Injury is a side effect in those pursuits, not a goal. And why are young boys encouraged to "fight their way out of the ghetto" to fame and riches if achieving that success causes irreparable damage?

Some states have tried to make the exhibitions less dangerous by requiring more safety gear, better training of referees and supervision by medical boards. The doctors who see the damage -- not just cuts and bruises, broken bones and smashed eyes, but permanent brain damage and death -- know what should be done, and they have recommended doing it.